Previous fires compound difficult recovery faced by Lake County

Lower Lake woman forced to evacuate days after loss of husband

Wendy Martin faced the tragedy of losing her husband to cancer on Friday, the day before the Lower Lake fire erupted. She fled their home on Sunday as flames took over her front yard.
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Wendy Martin faced the tragedy of losing her husband to cancer on Friday, the day before the Lower Lake fire erupted. She fled their home on Sunday as flames took over her front yard.

The two hospice-care workers left Wendy Martin’s side at 7 p.m. last Friday. It was time. Wendy’s husband, Deodato Alves, was departing from this world.

For decades, Wendy and Deodato had been truckers, sharing driving shifts as their big rig hauled commercial freight “from the canyons of Wyoming to the Mexican border to Florida and the East Coast and then back through the middle of the country,” Wendy said.

They always cherished their return to Lake County, to their modest ranch home in Lower Lake with its chicken coop and mighty oak tree.

“We enjoyed our lives on the road. We enjoyed coming home together,” said Wendy, 63. “We loved and we fought. We covered the whole spectrum. We saw everything. I didn’t have one regret. We were always better together than apart.”

About the only thing the couple didn’t celebrate was being forced out of their home by three major wildfires in barely more than a year – first the Rocky Fire, then the Jerusalem Fire, then the devastating Valley Fire.

“One evacuation after another,” she said wearily.

On Friday, a day before yet another inferno ravaged this struggling region, destroying much of the town of Lower Lake and nearby neighborhoods, Deodato was brought back from a hospital in St. Helena so he could spend his final hours in his home. He was succumbing to liver cancer at 61.

He could no longer speak, and Wendy grasped his hand as he lay in bed.

“I’m here. Can you hear me?” she said.

Deodato nodded.

“Do you know I love you?”

He nodded his head. He died at 9 p.m. with his wife at his side.

“He wasn’t in pain. He was peaceful. I’m so glad he didn’t have to go through this,” Wendy said.

The next day, the Clayton Fire – suspected to have been set by a serial arsonist – broke out. It roared through Lower Lake, surrounding Wendy and Deodato’s home with flames. It devoured brush, trees and neighborhoods in the tiny town of 1,300. It destroyed commercial buildings, a Tuscan-style winery and even the downtown offices of Habitat for Humanity, a group that has helped many local residents rebuild after the previous fires hit the area.

All told, the Clayton Fire, 65 percent contained Friday morning, has scorched nearly 4,000 acres and destroyed 300 structures. It compounded the searing pain and difficult recovery faced by Lake County, one of California’s poorest regions.

It’s going to take a long time clear out and get people back in. I’m not sure how that’s going to play out. They’re still cleaning up last year’s fires.

Herb Gura, Konocti Unified School District

This past September, the Valley Fire burned 76,067 acres in Lake, Sonoma and Napa counties, killed four people and destroyed 1,280 homes. It was third most damaging wildfire in California history, based on structures burned, and resulted in $700 million in insured losses and thousands of displaced residents. It followed the Rocky and Jerusalem fires, which combined burned nearly 95,000 acres and another 49 homes in Lake, Colusa, Yolo and Napa counties.

“There were people who have been evacuated during all four fires – and there is certainly a prevalence of post-traumatic stress among those who are continuously threatened by wildfire,” said Elizabeth Archer, an administrator for North Coast Opportunities, a nonprofit community assistance group that has raised money for victims of the disasters and is reaching out for help once again. “It is the worst reoccurring nightmare imaginable.”

The absurd scale of hardship faced by Lake County communities is underscored by the fact that Deodato Alves was once again evacuated due to fire – only this time after his death.

Alves’ body had been brought to mortuary in downtown Lower Lake on Friday night. But as flames raced toward town Saturday, he was loaded into a hearse and – with a sheriff’s escort – driven to another mortuary in Lakeport. He will be returned to the Lower Lake mortuary, once electric power is restored, for an Aug. 27 funeral.

While he is awaiting his final resting place, his community – once again – is building back.

The destruction has taken place in a county of 60,000 residents and few local employment opportunities. Lake County’s leading employers are three tribal casinos and geothermal power plants harnessing steam from local geysers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has the lowest median household income in the state – $36,000 – with one in four of residents living in poverty.

The latest fire hasn’t caused enough damage to trigger federal disaster aid, officials said. But Lake County Supervisor Jim Comstock, who represents Lower Lake and Valley Fire-devastated communities of Middletown and Anderson Springs, said the county is talking with the Office of Emergency Service about getting state assistance in erecting temporary modular houses in the city of Clearlake.

The county already faces a housing shortage because of past fires and previously stranded residents taking up emergency lodging.

“It’s a major challenge,” Comstock said. “We were moving along pretty well into the recovery effort from the Valley Fire when Saturday things changed again and brought a new one” with the Clayton Fire. “So we’re starting all over again.”

By midweek, Red Cross shelters had become less populated as Lower Lake residents began returning to homes that survived the conflagration. The Clayton Fire marked Red Cross shelter manager Margo Simpson’s fourth assignment in the county over the past two years. This time, she’s overseeing an evacuee center at Kelseyville High School that held as many as 60 displaced people. After volunteering for repeat assignments, the Oakland resident said: “I’ve got lots of friends now.”

Many friends in the community gathered Wednesday night in the board meeting room for the Konocti Unified School District, which includes Lower Lake. Classes, which were due to start on Monday, are still on hold. Officials said it may take as long as two weeks before the district can repair or replace a number of damaged classrooms.

“It’s going to take a long time clear out and get people back in,” said school board trustee Herb Gura. “I’m not sure how that’s going to play out. They’re still cleaning up last year’s fires.”

Another trustee, Bill Diener, nearly lost his home to the Clayton Fire. He watched Sunday as a Cal Fire crew with a bulldozer built a perimeter that limited damage to three cars and a side building. “The courage that people displayed – (including) the dozer operator I saw – (they) did things that most people can’t do,” said Diener, 55.

He added: “Right now it’s too close, too soon. We are family. We will get through this. We will rebuild. It’s what we do.”

There were people who have been evacuated during all four fires – and there is certainly a prevalence of post-traumatic stress among those who are continuously threatened by wildfire.

Elizabeth Archer, North Coast Opportunities

Brock Falkenberg, the county superintendent of schools, said major damage occurred at Lower Lake Elementary School, as flames destroyed a transitional kindergarten building as well as several portable classrooms. He said the burned area is being fenced off and that ashen debris will have to be removed and the area tested for airborne toxins.

Lower Lake Elementary Principal Tarin Benson, whose family suffered the loss of five houses on a property her parents had owned for 50 years, suffered a double trauma when flames damaged her school. The fire “got both my homes,” she said, referring to the family property and her school.

On the whole, local schools largely were spared by the Clayton Fire and previous blazes, and Falkenberg said he hopes they become a place for community recovery. Counselors from the multiple school districts in Lake and neighboring counties will be on-hand to help children and families once classes resume.

“We really think that because the schools survived these disasters, that allows them to be a beacon of light upon which we can rebuild,” Falkenberg said.

North Coast Opportunities raised $1.6 million in donations to help more than 1,000 people who lost homes or jobs due to the previous wildfires and had little or no insurance for rebuilding. The fundraising included a benefit concert in nearby Mendocino County featuring a popular local band, the Funky Dozen, whose lead singer, Shelly Mascari, lost her house in the Valley Fire.

Archer said new cash donations are now “desperately needed” for victims of the Clayton Fire. She said donations can be delivered to branches of the MendoLake Credit Union of the Savings Bank of Mendocino County or mailed to North Coast Opportunities at 413 North State St., Ukiah, CA 95482. Donors also can make PayPal payments through the group’s website,

In addition to gathering up school supplies for needy students, the cheerleading squad at Lower Lake High School started a fundraiser for the latest evacuees. “I’m really glad to see our community come together,” Adrianna Illia, 16, a student representative to the school board.

Wendy Martin on Thursday was staying at a local hotel, unable to return home. Her Lower Lake house was still standing, but the electricity was out. The fire destroyed the chicken coop, but the chickens made it safely to the house of a neighbor, who is now caring for them, along with the couple’s dogs, an English bulldog mix, Mollie and her two pups, Buster and Spuds.

The blaze surely would have taken the house if not for the courage of firefighters, Martin said. She was particularly relieved to learn they kept flames from reaching her oak tree. “Of course I’m going to stay. That’s my home,” said Martin, eager to get back to her house, just like after those long-haul trucking runs with Deodato.

She thinks the same spirit, an enduring sense of home, also will hold true for her county.

“We’ve been here since the 1850s,” she said of the community. “We’ll rebuild. We’ll stay. We’ll just repair and repair. That’s what we do. We’re survivors.”

Peter Hecht: 916-326-5539, @phecht_sacbee Phillip Reese contributed to this report.

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