Video: The Leonard family rises from the ashes of the Valley Fire
The tree is a burly Douglas fir, soaring 140 feet into the sky, its trunk so thick that two men, arms stretched wide, cannot fully embrace it. Through the years, a handcrafted swing, attached by cable wire to an iron rod high above the tree’s base, has given scores of children the giddy feeling of flight.
On a bright autumn day, David Leonard stood on his family’s burned-out land on Cobb Mountain, the highest peak in the majestic Mayacamas range in north-central California, and rested a hand on the fir’s scorched bark.
“It’s like part of our family,” he said. His thick-soled shoes sank into soil coated with soot and torched pine needles. His eyes, a soft green, were tired.
“I just hope it makes it.”
Very little on the Leonards’ property survived the epic wildfire that roared through Lake County in September. The cozy home that David and his wife, Cindy, had shared for 17 years, along a steep, twisting road in the unincorporated community of Cobb, was burned to its concrete foundation.
Their daughter Maya’s three chickens disappeared into the flames. So did a framed Chez Panisse menu marking the night 15 years ago when David proposed. The Christmas stockings knit by David’s grandmother. The sturdy sewing machine handed down from Cindy’s grandma. All were incinerated by a wildfire supercharged by tornado-like winds and a landscape brittle from years of drought.
California endured one of its worst wildfire seasons in recorded history in 2015, and the Valley Fire was the most menacing of all. It tore through 76,067 acres in Lake, Sonoma and Napa counties, killing four people and leveling 1,280 homes.
The blaze ravaged Hoberg’s Resort, a historic retreat founded in the 1880s where the Leonards had hosted their wedding reception. Cobb Mountain Elementary, where David is principal and Maya attends fifth grade, did not fall, thanks to a heroic stand by firefighters. But its ventilation system and ceilings were seriously damaged, and it was shuttered for weeks. More than a third of the students lost their homes.
In some ways, the Leonards considered themselves fortunate. Nearly six weeks after the fire, dozens of Cobb’s 1,800 or so residents still slept in tents, makeshift shelters and on the sofas of friends and relatives. David, Cindy and Maya were living relatively comfortably about 15 miles away in Hidden Valley Lake, in a home owned by his mother.
Among the thousands of people displaced in Lake County, many, including the Leonards, vowed to rebuild. But not all. Some lacked the means; some the will. Cobb’s grocery store was still standing, as were the pizzeria and post office. But along Highway 175, the main road leading into and out of Cobb, and along unpaved roads scaling Cobb Mountain’s flank, dozens of homes and huge swaths of wilderness were simply gone.
For David, squinting into the sun that autumn afternoon, the obliteration of the forest was a painful reminder of what had been lost, and what might take a lifetime to recover.
He had driven along Highway 175 nearly every day since the inferno, from his eviscerated property and his school on Cobb Mountain to his latest temporary replacement home. The drive took him past blackened hillsides where the remains of chaparral jutted from the ground like stubble. Large stands of skeletal trees lifted their charred branches toward the heavens. Gargantuan evergreens lay splayed on the ground like felled boxers.
It struck David that the sky was far too open.
Some days, as he piloted his pickup to and from work, the scene was enough to bring him to tears.
Chapter 1: Mountain on fire
For as long as they had lived within the fir and oak forest surrounding their home at the base of Cobb Mountain, David and Cindy Leonard understood the risks. It was not a question of whether the fire would come. It was a matter of when.
Summer is lush in the Mayacamas range. It is warm with the scent of pine and sounds of calling birds and trickling streams. But it is also the start of fire season. Since 2005, Lake County has been hit by 11 major wildfires and numerous smaller ones. For longtime residents, the season brings an annual ritual of revisiting evacuation plans and potential escape routes.
In summer 2015, with the forest parched by four years of drought, residents were more mindful than usual about clearing brush and debris from their property, and creating strips of open space around their homes. By late August, Lake County had suffered two serious burns. The Rocky and Jerusalem fires consumed a combined 94,700 acres and destroyed more than 100 buildings in the Clear Lake and Middletown areas, just down the highway from Cobb.
Like their neighbors, David, 44, and Cindy, 49, were accustomed to scanning the horizon on warm days for smoke trails or red flickers that might signal impending disaster.
On a Saturday in the middle of September, it was their turn to panic.
“I just drove through fire,” Cindy told her husband, calling from a winery north of town, where she was helping plan a 30th anniversary celebration for Cobb Mountain Elementary.
The first reports had come in about an hour earlier on High Valley Road west of Cobb. In just minutes, sparks whose origins remain unclear ignited an inferno that exploded through the thirsty forest and threatened to consume the town. Residents described flames shooting 200 feet into the air. Authorities took to the radio, Internet and mountain roads, advising residents throughout southern Lake County to leave, and quickly.
David spoke with Cindy by phone from their living room, with its polished wood floors and knotty pine walls. Through large picture windows that framed the forest, he could see white plumes rolling toward him in the distance and, further off, spasms of orange flame. He stepped outside and felt the heat of an unnatural wind.
They had planned for this possibility for years. But fear made it hard to focus. It tightened his muscles and scattered his thinking. How long did he have? What should he take? Pictures. Music. Important papers. Would the roads be open? Nine-year-old Maya was safe, spending the day with his mother in Hidden Valley Lake. He and Cindy should head there.
He lifted a baby picture of Maya from the living room wall. Where were her American Girl dolls? He had to save her fiddle, and his trumpet and guitar. Cindy had asked him to pluck a couple pieces of her favorite jewelry from their bedroom. He rushed through the house, pulling files that held their birth certificates, passports, credit card information and medical histories. He snatched the backup hard drive for the computer.
He stowed what he culled in the small space behind the main cab of his truck, leapt into the driver’s seat and slammed the door. He heard gas tanks exploding in the distance, like bombs in a war zone. “I’ve never been so scared in my life,” he told Cindy over the phone.
“Stay focused,” she told him. “We can fall apart later.”
Shifting into drive, David looked back at their home, its pale yellow facade silhouetted against the trees, and said a silent goodbye. He bumped across unpaved Rainbow Court and made his way to Highway 175 east toward Highway 29, which would take him north to Hidden Valley Lake.
It was like racing a storm. The roads were clearer than he expected, but behind him the smoke grew thicker and closer. The afternoon sky darkened, and the sunshine pierced through in a horrifying shade of blood orange. Red Cal Fire trucks rushed past in both directions, lights flashing.
Within 20 minutes or so, David made it to Hidden Valley Lake. Cindy’s roundabout trek, up Bottle Rock Road and onto Highway 29, would take a bit longer.
At David’s mother’s house, Maya was huddled with her best friend, Bea, who was visiting from Anderson Springs, not far from Cobb. Normally light and bouncy, Maya was on edge. As she surveyed the scene from her grandma’s front yard, it seemed the entire ridgeline above her hometown was on fire.
Her thoughts went to her pet chickens, her swing, her apple tree. Tears stung her eyes. The girls hugged tightly.
The fire kept coming, multiplying in size and intensity, overpowering efforts to beat it back. Soon word came that Hidden Valley Lake was threatened. They would have to retreat.
Bea’s parents picked her up and headed toward Napa. David’s mother, Inge Rankin, and her husband, Mike, headed toward a shelter in Kelseyville. The Leonards drove south, about 50 miles, past Santa Rosa to a friend’s home in Sebastopol.
They settled in a spare bedroom and tracked developments via ominous news reports. Evacuees shared bits of information on Facebook, but the posts were sometimes conflicting. Internet and phone service in Cobb were out.
“Will we be able to go back home?” Maya asked. David and Cindy said they hoped their house would survive. But whatever happened, they would take care of one another. Maya cradled her dolls.
Sunday passed into Monday, and information about their home remained scarce. With few exceptions, only firefighters were allowed on the mountain. On Monday afternoon, the family went to an emergency center at the Napa County fairgrounds in search of a change of clothes. David used his phone to check Facebook. He had a message from a neighbor whose husband had just returned from Rainbow Court.
“I’m so sorry,” she wrote. “They just checked your place. It’s gone.”
David stared at the screen, processing the words. He and Cindy held each other. Later that day, David posted his own update.
“The Leonards just joined the crowd,” he wrote. “Deeply sorrowful right now. My hopes for others are still high. We love our community, and we will return.”
Chapter 2: Why Cobb
Cobb was not for everyone.
Certainly not for people who need suburban comforts. The residential roads were dusty and rutted in summer. The winters sometimes brought heavy snow that took out the electricity. Cobb had a post office and Hardester’s Market, a small grocery where the clerks swapped stories with customers. The Village Pub, not far up the highway, offered 20 beers on tap but closed early on weeknights. The nearest shopping mall was 30 minutes away.
For David and Cindy Leonard, it all added up to something close to perfect. Cobb, spanning about 5 square miles at 2,800 feet elevation, was mainly a scattering of homes in the forested Mayacamas range. Handymen and contractors who retired to the area kept everything humming. Housing was affordable, the air clean, and the wilderness crossed with trails.
The area had its share of artists and old hippies, but also longtime residents whose families have hiked, hunted and worked the land for generations. The town’s defining space was the school. Locals gathered at Cobb Mountain Elementary for PTO meetings, summer camps and talent shows. With David the principal and Cindy head of the school garden program, the Leonards were on a first-name basis with pretty much every family in town.
They had met in August 1999 at Tra Vigne in St. Helena, an iconic wine country restaurant known for its picturesque courtyard and inventive menu. David was a transplant from Philadelphia, with a degree in anthropology. Cindy, an Illinois native, had a bachelor’s in English literature. He landed at Tra Vigne as a bartender, and she as a server.
Their attraction was instant. They made easy conversation. Both were softspoken and philosophical, with a shared concern about the environment. Both liked children.
Cindy had been living in Cobb two years before she met David. She’d been looking to buy a house, and Sonoma, with its chic galleries and haute cuisine, was too pricey. A real estate agent told her about a place in Cobb, about an hour and a half away.
The house on Rainbow Court, built in the 1950s, had a timeless feel, with three bedrooms, a wraparound porch and picture windows that looked out on the forest. The living room was paneled, with airy ceilings and a wood-burning stove. Soft light filtered in through the trees. Cindy walked in, and knew she was home.
David moved in not long after they met; they married in 2001, and Maya was born in 2005.
While Cindy stayed on at Tra Vigne, David shifted into teaching. He earned his credential, and from his first class in 2006, teaching second- and third-graders, felt he had found his life’s work. He loved the challenge and breakthroughs, the sense of accomplishment when a child grasped a new concept.
Last year, after Cobb’s principal left, staffers pressed David to take the job. He accepted an offer to “intern” as principal, and prepped for the August opening of school even while studying for his certification.
Then, just a few weeks after classes started, the fire.
It was two weeks before David and Cindy were able to drive up to their property. The blaze had been contained, but some parts of the forest still smoldered. The area was, in some ways, unrecognizable. So many of the forested landmarks that David and Cindy used to track their journeys had been erased. Torched cars sat abandoned along the roads.
The Leonards were relieved to see the school and local businesses intact. But the missing homes and disfigured landscape were heartbreaking. Residents exchanged stories in haunted tones.
A cadre of disaster response teams, from local, state and federal offices, set up shop across Lake County, offering relief services. The Twin Pines casino became an evacuation center, where fire victims stayed for free. The Salvation Army, Red Cross and FEMA set up trailers in its parking lot. People lined up for showers and hot meals at a Bible camp sponsored by a Billy Graham organization. At the Middletown Senior Center and Library, people could pick up cases of water and boxes of fruit, file insurance claims, replace driver’s licenses and inquire about housing assistance.
In Cobb, residents went to work for one another.
Rose Geck, a retired teacher, helped transform a Lions Club building into a makeshift shopping center where folks could take whatever donated items they needed, from diapers to blankets to kitchen supplies. Another local, Jessica Pyska, whose home had been decimated, held “mom meetings” where fellow refugees could collect donations, share stories and lean on one another.
“We cry every day about the losses,” Geck said at one point, surveying a group of volunteers sorting clothing. “But we also cry about the amazing generosity. This community is a special place.”
Cobb Elementary’s staff, meanwhile, set about tracking down students, who now were scattered across the county and beyond. They set up interim classrooms at Middletown High School, and arranged for five different buses to ferry students to and from their temporary homes.
As the weeks dragged on, the anxiety and exhaustion that came with dislocation sapped some of that pioneer spirit. People had lost not just their homes and clothes and dishes and beds, but computers, checkbooks, toiletries, medicines. Nothing was easy. Deprivation wore them down.
The town hall meetings authorities hosted in Middletown sometimes devolved into shouting matches. Where were the FEMA checks? When would they bring in emergency housing? Why hadn’t the county cleared more debris? What would happen when the rains came?
“No more attacking! No more!” Middletown resident Fletcher Thorton boomed during an October meeting. “These people are trying to help you!”
David’s stress level was building as well.
Just weeks into his new job, the fire had upended his school. His students had seen a powerful force carve out immense destruction. Many had lost their homes, their pets, their books, their toys. They were sleeping in temporary beds, miles from home.
It was David’s job to buoy them. But in the solitude of his office, he often struggled to contain his sorrow.
And school was only one of his responsibilities. Life at home was makeshift and strained. They were in their third temporary home. After fleeing the fire, they had spent the first couple days in Sebastopol, outside the danger zone. From there, they moved into a pop-up camper in a friend’s backyard in Calistoga, closer to home. After a couple weeks, a rental home David’s mother owned in Hidden Valley Lake opened up, and now they were crashing there.
Cindy spent her days navigating the phone calls and paperwork associated with being a disaster victim. Their homeowner’s claim appeared to be proceeding, and they hoped to get a check soon to replace some of their valuables. The larger claim, for the structure itself, would take longer. She had a list of the specific types of tile, wood, flooring, decking and light fixtures that had made their home so comfortable. She wondered if it would ever feel the same.
On weekdays, when David got home from school, Cindy left for the long drive to Tra Vigne. David cooked Maya’s dinner, stepping around cases of generic drinking water stacked on the floor, and made sure she did her homework. The counters held neat piles of insurance documents, government forms and business cards for utilities, tree services, architects, building contractors.
Each night, after Maya went to bed, David studied for his principal’s accreditation exam. Each morning, he woke to the coffee pot alarm, set for 4:45 a.m., and did it all over again.
In a few weeks, they would be moving again, this time to a place in Cobb, just around the corner from their property. David and Cindy worried about the effects of all the churn on Maya. She seemed to be getting into a rhythm at school, and was taking her music lessons again. But she also was waking in the dark with nightmares.
While talking on the phone one day with Cindy’s father, David broke into sobs. How on earth would they get their life back? It all seemed out of reach.
“We’re living day by day,” he said later. “I’m having trouble with the long view right now.”
Chapter 3: The rising
Cindy didn’t recognize her at first, the angelic face staring out from the pile of broken concrete and melted glass that used to be home.
She bent down and looked closer. It was Maya’s “Christmas doll,” her daughter’s companion since birth. Her ceramic features were visible beneath the ashes. The pink lips, the painted brows. But her body was incinerated, her fancy plaid and faux fur holiday outfit missing. Her eyes were burned through.
Cindy paused. Should she add it to the wooden tray that held other mementos she had found during her sift through the rubble? It seemed too morbid. She moved on.
This was her fifth visit to the ruined property, one more sad effort to salvage something of weight or meaning from the destruction. She tread carefully, bending to study broken shards of colorful ceramic pottery they had brought home from Mexico, the Middle East and other trips through the years. She lifted a rusty stake from a horseshoe set, a ruined piece of her Le Creuset cookware. She found a box of Maya’s Legos, the blue plastic melted into a misshapen glob. She toed the burned pages of a children’s book, and surveyed the metal ladder leaning precariously against the frame that once held Maya’s loft bed.
The Leonards were on the clock. They had to rescue any pieces of their former lives that the Valley Fire had spared, let the rest go and move on. The bulldozers would be coming soon to scrape away and bury what remained. The house was destroyed, yes, but not vaporized. The soil was now tainted with metals, paint, cleaning chemicals and all sorts of other toxins released by the flames. David and Cindy couldn’t start rebuilding until public officials deemed the land, water and air on and around their property safe.
Everyone in town seemed to be going through the same massive purge. Cobb’s serene rhythms had been replaced by the grinding, lurching, chewing din of buzzsaws and earth movers. Yellow-vested work crews felled trees and buildings and power lines. Mounds of chipped wood, three times a man’s height, rose along Highway 175, and residents wondered where it all would end up. The forest was desecrated with ominous orange X’s. The hillsides had been sprayed with an unearthly green substance that was supposed to help fend off landslides when the rain started.
For the Leonards, it was disturbing and hopeful all at once.
Five weeks after the flames, the town took a collective leap toward normalcy. The ventilation system at Cobb Mountain Elementary, heavily damaged by the smoke and flames, had been repaired and refurbished. The quaint little school, its tan buildings trimmed in cranberry red, was to reopen.
David was in high spirits as he tugged the ropes that raised the American flag in front of the main building, where he and the office staff had posted bright green WELCOME BACK! signs. Behind him, the forest was a patchwork of green and black.
“Good morning!” he said, smiling broadly and calling out to each student. “Good morning! How are you?”
Sixty of the school’s 162 students and six staff members had been driven from their homes. Some were still living in temporary quarters far from Cobb. Yet, all but a handful had made it here. One after another, the children arrived by car, truck and bus, toting Hello Kitty backpacks and rocket ship lunchboxes. Scores of firefighters in blue uniforms were on campus to greet them. They got high-fives from Smokey Bear.
They assembled in the auditorium, where men and women in Cal Fire uniforms stood shoulder to shoulder before the stage. Maya sat on the floor with her classmates; Cindy in a section of folding chairs with the other parents.
David proclaimed it a historic moment, and handed each student a certificate with ceremonial flourish. “I was there the day that Cobb Mountain Elementary School reopened after the Valley Fire,” the certificates read.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Paul Duncan took the microphone. While he was battling the fire, he told them, his own home had gone up in flames. He, too, was rebuilding.
“We’re gonna recover,” Duncan assured them. “The rain will come. The mountain will turn green again. The trees will grow.”
“You are safe here,” he said. “Welcome home.”
Chapter 4: Return to Cobb Mountain
At October’s end, amid the corpses of trees, the collapsed buildings and the carcasses of vehicles that defined the fire’s aftermath, David and Cindy searched for signs of new beginnings.
A few blades of green poking through the ash. The scent of pine beneath the acrid smell of smoke. Cleared space where a home had disintegrated.
They were back on Cobb Mountain, living in a seasonal home owned by friends Tappy and Keith Nelson. Tappy had once taught school at Cobb Mountain Elementary. Keith, retired from Calpine energy company, was a noted metal sculptor who had crafted the decorative iron gate that once opened to the Leonard family’s vegetable garden.
The house had high ceilings and sweeping views. A pair of giraffes stood off the front entrance. A silver dragon held court in the living room. A heron swooped from above. It was a relief for the Leonards to be back in town, close to friends and school.
Yet in many ways they remained in limbo, unsure when their property might be declared ready for rebuilding. According to the papers they found tacked to a telephone pole near the site, the EPA had removed toxic materials. The gas company had cleared away their propane tank. Specialists had identified debris that could be recycled. So many people with clipboards had come and gone. But their lot was still a vision of ruin, and the picture of their future remained blurry.
One afternoon, David and Cindy waited at the site for a tree specialist. They were particularly interested in the fate of the giant Douglas fir that was home to Maya’s swing. As they peered downhill, watching Bobcats digging into earth and rock on a nearby lot, a man in a dusty pickup pulled in. It was University of California forestry specialist Greg Giusti’s mission “to help people reclaim the forest” in the aftermath of disasters.
“Around here, people consider the trees as much their home as the structures,” said Giusti, who sported a thick beard and yellow construction helmet. “People are devastated.”
Giusti looked skyward. The fire had “skulked around the ground” in this area, he observed, leaving many tree bases blackened but their upper branches largely intact. It was a good sign.
He approached the Douglas fir.
“Whoa!” he said. “That’s a big tree.”
He put its age at about 140 years, rather elderly for the species.
“What are the chances it will survive?” David asked, his voice hesitant.
Giusti retreated to his truck and grabbed a tool he would use to bore into the trunk and pull out a sample. That inner spiral of wood would give him a good idea of its fate.
He placed the tool’s narrow auger into the trunk and began cranking the handle. Within minutes he had extracted a creamy spiral that he placed into Cindy’s open hands. It looked healthy, Giusti said. It was firm, moist and light in color. This tree had a chance. But it was too soon for a firm prognosis.
“We’ll just have to wait until spring and see how it looks,” he said.
David smiled. “Sounds hopeful to me.”
Cindy was less certain. “Will I be lying awake at night after we rebuild, worrying that this huge tree is going to fall on my house?” she wondered. She walked the lot, her trim frame dwarfed by dozens of charcoal trees that were certainly dead or dying. She looked back at the mighty fir, in so many ways a symbol of their life on Cobb Mountain.
“I don’t know,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “Maybe we should just let it go.”