Bundled in a zippered blue sweater, her hair still damp from the shower, Cindy Leonard arrived at the Lake County courthouse on a November morning clutching plans for her family’s future.
“VALLEY FIRE REPLACEMENT HOME,” read the titles on the long rolls of paper she held in her arms. “LEONARD RESIDENCE.”
It had been 424 days since the epic Valley Fire obliterated Cindy’s family’s home on Cobb Mountain. A year and two months of instability, uncertainty and frustration for Cindy, her husband, David, and their daughter Maya.
Like so many others who survived the disaster, the Leonards had lost virtually everything they owned. In the weeks after flames tore through their small mountain community, they sorted through piles of donated items for clothing and shoes, blankets and sheets, soap and shaving cream. They mourned their losses: Maya’s pet chickens; antiques passed down from previous generations; artwork from their world travels. They missed their comfortable, pastoral life. They missed normalcy.
Home for the past few months had been a cramped trailer yards away from the muddy pit where their house of 17 years once stood. It was their sixth temporary living arrangement since the fire. Their view, once of dense forest, was a depressing tableau of dead and dying trees. All that was left of a towering Douglas fir that once was the centerpiece of their property was a collection of milled wood, covered in blue tarp, that might one day be transformed into tables or molding.
Now, Cindy carried the paperwork that represented their path forward. The architectural renderings showed a house with 3,000 square feet of space, twice the size of their old home. They detailed an entryway with stone steps, a professional kitchen with a slate floor and a music room with a piano. On the upper level, Maya would have a window seat and a reading nook.
“It’s going to be a glorious house,” Rod Tan, a friend of the family who drew up the plans, had told Cindy the previous day.
As she hurried into the courthouse, hoping to be the first in line to submit her plans, Cindy felt her stomach churn. She knew the paperwork she was about to hand over to the county’s community development department in Lakeport had to be perfect. Every wooden stud the correct thickness. Every fire sprinkler in the right place. There were height specifications to consider. Driveway requirements. Electrical schematics. Signatures and check marks from myriad agencies and specialists. If anything failed to pass inspection by planners, their permit once again would be delayed.
The Leonards were prepared to spend the winter in their RV, crowding around their makeshift kitchen table to eat meals and read books and complete homework assignments, sleeping and waking in claustrophobic bedrooms on either side of the trailer. They longed for the day they could look out their little windows and see contractors and equipment, rebuilding what the fire had taken from them.
“It’s been an adventure, and I got a couple of things out of it,” said Maya, 11, summing up her life since the fire. Those things included a playhouse, a zip line and a trio of new hens who gave the family fresh eggs each morning. “But I guess I just want a real house.”
Similar thoughts ran through Cindy’s mind as she stepped up to the counter at the planner’s office. “I’d like to submit today,” she told a clerk.
Minutes later, assistant planner Mark Roberts stared at a bird’s-eye view on his computer of the Leonard’s property, lush and green before the flames swallowed it.
Cindy handed him her bundles, and he unfurled them onto a table. Roberts and technician Bonne Sharp studied all 23 pages for any missing paperwork or sign-offs. Cindy stood by quietly as other weary-looking fire survivors lined up toting their own documents and questions.
“Every day people come in here without the proper paperwork,” Sharp said. “It gets rather intense at times. I’ve seen emotions spill over. But we have to make sure everything meets code.”
After about an hour of review, Sharp proclaimed Cindy’s plans good to go. Pending final approval by the chief planner, the Leonards would have their building permit within a month.
“Yay!” Cindy said, pumping her fist.
She scribbled out a check to the county for $1,563.18 and handed it to Sharp. Had she ever been so happy to spend so much money?
Tears welled in Cindy’s eyes as she boarded the elevator back down to the building’s first floor. She was heading back to Cobb optimistic but guarded.
“It’s surreal,” she said. “I can hardly believe it’s happening.”
Cindy spent the afternoon testing gray and blue paint splotches on the outside of a shed on the property. It was exciting to envision what their new house might look like as they pulled into their driveway.
Twelve days later, she, David and Maya smiled broadly as they posed for a selfie with their freshly minted building permit.
Season of change
Along Highway 175, the main road in and out of Cobb, blackened pine trees and towering piles of singed logs still mar the landscape, testaments to the catastrophe that Lake County had endured.
But as winter approached, the scarred hills were showing splashes of green. Skeletons of homes were taking shape. Santa hats were appearing on tree stumps and ornaments were hanging on the fragile branches of surviving evergreens.
“You still hurt, because you see the reminders of everything you lost,” said Donna Catalina. The fire had gobbled two of her family’s homes. “But you can’t dwell on it. It’s a wound, but it’s not so fresh. You just want to look forward.”
The wildfire, fueled by tornadic winds that ripped through a landscape brittled by years of drought, destroyed nearly 1,300 dwellings, wiped out 76,067 acres of forestland and killed four people, ranking it among the most destructive ever in California. Cobb, in the southern part of Lake County, was its epicenter. Officials believe the fire – which ignited on Sept. 12, 2015 and was the biggest of four to strike the area in little more than a year – was started by sparks from an improperly wired hot tub.
Many of those who lost their homes, especially older residents unable or unwilling to cope with the overwhelming process of rebuilding, likely will never return to the area. Surveys put this number at around 40 percent. The county, one of the poorest in the state, will suffer a major hit in lost property taxes, sales taxes and hotel bed taxes.
Still, County Supervisor Rob Brown, a lifelong Lake County resident who has taken the lead on fire recovery in the Cobb area, was feeling a sense of optimism this holiday season – certainly when compared to last year when everyone seemed numb, he said.
About 115 homes were either rebuilt or in active rebuilding mode. “That’s only 10 percent of what was destroyed, but it feels good,” Brown said. “A lot of contractors are working hard, trying to finish houses before winter really sets in.”
Brown’s cellphone still pinged regularly with residents worried about rutted roads and dead trees. The community of Anderson Springs, whose ruined sewer system the county was trying to find money to repair fully, still looked desolate. But the historic Hoberg’s resort, which had been reduced to ashes, was being cleared out and plans were in motion for it to rise again.
“There is a broad range of emotions around here, but overall I think people have a sense of progress,” Brown said. “Realtors are doing well, restaurants are busy, businesses generally are doing good. There is a lot of normalcy coming back.”
Tappy Nelson, a close friend and neighbor of the Leonards, felt it as she drove along Highway 175, where she spotted a lumber truck one November afternoon loaded with supplies and headed toward a charred neighborhood. “I thought, ‘I’m so happy for those people,’ ” she said.
At Nelson’s spin class that morning, a friend showed off a cellphone image of her nearly completed home. People gushed as if they were looking at a picture of a newborn baby. Holiday lights twinkled outside the Village Pub in Cobb. The post office was hopping, processing Christmas packages and boxes filled with appliances, plumbing supplies and other items to be installed in replacement houses.
“I see people’s spirits improving,” Nelson said. “Maybe for some it’s just acceptance. But people seem to be moving forward.”
Josh and Samantha Wood, who moved with their kids Logan and Lilly into their rebuilt home on Summit Drive in Cobb just after Thanksgiving, seemed to be ahead of the game. The family, transplants from the Mojave Desert, were thrilled to be resettled in their adopted community.
But as he stood in his kitchen on a recent morning, taking a break from mixing and pouring concrete for a fence on his property, Josh looked out the window and felt new anxiety inspired by the scene in front of him.
“Dead trees, probably 100 feet tall, standing 75 feet from my house,” he said, beads of cement dotting his beard and face. He shook his head. “It’s scary.”
The trees threatened not only their home, but the unfinished one next door that Samantha’s widowed mother, Maryann Hiser, had purchased after the unexpected death of her husband, Kevin, just days after the Valley Fire.
Every time the wind howled at night, Josh and Sam lay awake as their children slept. They worried that their dream house, with its open design and vaulted ceilings and recessed lights, its Christmas tree decorated with Celtic ornaments in honor of Sam’s dad, would be smashed by the towering ghosts of the Valley Fire.
The ghosts were everywhere. The mountain just beyond their front yard is bald and blackened. Of the 30 homes destroyed in their neighborhood, only eight are expected to be rebuilt. Empty, abandoned lots dominate the street.
They would feel much better, Josh said, if they could only get rid of the charred firs on the lots immediately surrounding their home. But to remove them, the county was requiring each of the Wood family’s former neighbors to sign off on a “right of entry” for workers. That task was turning out to be very complicated.
Josh was trying to track down the property owners. But some had disappeared for other cities and states and left no forwarding addresses. Others declined to sign the paperwork, or seemingly ignored it. The Wood family was stuck.
Dozens of people in Cobb and surrounding areas were in similar straits. For many homeowners who were in the process of rebuilding, the next big question would be how to deal with all the lifeless trees.
In Josh and Samantha’s case, the temporary solution would be installing a tall fence around their home. At least while they are inside, Josh said, he and his wife and kids no longer will have to stare at the ugly moonscape.
As Josh was working on the project, a major storm dumped more than 5 inches of rain on Cobb and sent a huge tree branch from a neighboring property crashing into Sam’s mother’s new home.
“My mom’s house was supposed to be finished this month,” Samantha said. “Now she’s going to have to start over.”
Before she sat down to write holiday cards inside her family’s RV on their decimated land on Rainbow Court, Cindy Leonard thought about blessings.
She watched Maya reluctantly put down her book, a fantasy novel based on Norse mythology, and head down the road to Tappy and Keith Nelson’s house to practice her piano scales.
The piano, which friends Tom and Virginia Jordan had given to the Leonards to replace the one they had lost in the fire, would be a centerpiece of the family’s new home. Maya was reading at the college level now, and the nightmares she had in the months following the fire had ceased. On the wall near the bunk bed where she slept with her dolls and stuffed animals, a poster quoted Dumbledore from the “Harry Potter” book series: “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the light.”
David, principal of Cobb Mountain Elementary School, where Maya attended the sixth grade, was feeling more settled, too. This past academic year, his first as principal, he had shepherded his students through a relentless fire season that shook their lives and emotions. He comforted and reassured them every day, even as he tried to hold his own family together. Briefly, he considered reducing his hours and stress levels by going back to teaching. But he had decided to stay on as leader of the school.
“I hope the fire is the worst thing I ever have to deal with” as a principal, a father and a husband, he said.
Over the previous 14 months, Cindy, David and Maya had learned what it was like to lose almost all of their possessions, to live in borrowed clothes, to essentially be homeless. It taught them lessons in empathy and humility. After losing her job at St. Helena’s beloved Tra Vigne restaurant, which closed last year, Cindy amped up her volunteer work at the school, took part in community events to boost the town’s spirits and became active in a committee charged with helping fire survivors navigate the recovery process.
When the Clayton Fire ignited in August near Lower Lake, the Leonards headed to an evacuation center in Middletown to pass out blankets and set up cots for people displaced by the blaze.
As she and David worked on the numerous details of a replacement home, they had their moments of disagreement and bickering. How large? One story or two? What kind of windows? Ultimately they concluded that home, really, was not a trailer or a grand house. It was Cobb itself. Their marriage was strong and they envisioned themselves growing old here. And with that thought, they realized they no longer were just surviving day-to-day. They were moving forward.
If the weather cooperated, the Leonards might see crews pouring the foundation of their new home by the end of the year. In January, they plan to invite friends to a “framing party” to celebrate the beginning of the next phase of their lives.
“I’m starting to envision what it will be like to enter those doors, to walk through the hallways, to spend time in the kitchen,” David said. “I’m ready.”
In the meantime, the family was making the best of the holidays.
The trailer was too small for a Christmas tree and presents, so Maya had written a letter to Santa requesting that gifts be taken to her grandmother’s home in Hidden Valley Lake. Recent rains had seeped into the RV, dampening the floors and causing the windows to cloud over with condensation. Holiday baking would be nearly impossible in the trailer’s miniature kitchen.
No matter. Cindy had placed a wreath on the inside of the front door. Outside, she and David and Maya hung tinsel and ornaments in the trees, and lights on the RV. Plastic reindeer pranced nearby.
Cindy dug through a pile of mail and found the box that held her family’s recently printed 2016 holiday cards. On the front was an image of a Buddha statue and a gnome, looking out over their burned property. The back of the card showed Maya, David and Cindy smiling broadly, proudly showing off their new building permit.
“Simple Moments Bring Great Joy,” the card read.
On the day Cindy started addressing them to friends and relatives, the season’s first snow flurries swirled.