What’s it take to rebuild from the ashes? Time, love and attention to the details.
The front door is crafted from the mighty Douglas fir that once was the centerpiece of David and Cindy Leonard’s lush property on Cobb Mountain.
Shelves in the living room previously lived as sugar pine trees, shading the family’s forest home.
The handles on the kitchen cabinets are identical to the ones that melted away in the Valley Fire that ravaged Lake County in September 2015. The iron accessories in the downstairs bathroom were lifted from the ashes and restored.
For Cindy and David Leonard and their daughter Maya, the new and glorious house on Upper Rainbow Drive in the little town of Cobb is a monument to all that they lost in a monster blaze that forever changed their lives.
Sparked by faulty wiring in a hot tub about five miles from the Leonard home and fueled by whipping winds, the Valley Fire burned for a month, killing four people, consuming 1,281 homes and permanently blemishing the forest.
Nearly three years later, in the midst of yet another stressful wildfire season in California, Cobb is showing signs of recovery. So, too, is the Leonard family.
Their message to others now dealing with crushing losses? The path to recovery is long and difficult, but life will get better, day by day.
“Our trees definitely are scarred, but we tend to see the green and the growth and not the remnants of the fire,” David Leonard said as he stood on a recent afternoon in the home’s master bedroom, which features a deck overlooking the forest. “I don’t think the threat of wildfires ever will go away, but you’ve got to live your life.”
On Sept. 12, 2015, the Leonards fled flames that were exploding all around them. As they left, they grabbed precious musical instruments, photos and a few other items. When they returned to Cobb a few days later, their longtime home and everything in it had been reduced to a pile of rubble.
The family lived with various relatives and friends for a time, then moved into a trailer on their decimated property. Beneath the burned skeletons of trees, they stayed in the cramped RV as they fought to rebuild their former life. They wore donated clothes, attended fire recovery meetings and endured frustrating insurance negotiations while trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy.
Now, as they settle into their newly rebuilt home, they cannot stop thinking about families who are just beginning to navigate the same bumpy road that they traveled.
“For everyone who is affected by these fires, it’s a marathon,” David Leonard said. “The immediate trauma fades, but there are constantly triggers that can take you right back” to the day that changed everything.
For thousands of Californians, the “marathon” is in its early stages.
In Sonoma County, new homes are beginning to rise from the rubble left by a rash of fires last October in the Wine Country. Those blazes collectively became the deadliest and most destructive in California history, killing 44 people and destroying nearly 9,000 structures. Insurance claims have eclipsed $10 billion.
This summer is bringing new horrors.
Fires are menacing Lake County once again. A pair of blazes known as the Mendocino Complex has burned more than 150,000 acres, destroyed dozens of homes and chased thousands of people from their homes in Kelseyville, Lakeport and other communities.
Elsewhere, firefighters are trying to get a grip on two other massive, deadly blazes.
The Ferguson Fire in Mariposa County near Yosemite National Park incinerated nearly 75,000 acres as of this week, and two firefighters died battling the blaze. The Carr Fire in Shasta County near Redding killed at least six people, forced mass evacuations and had consumed more than 130,000 acres as of last week. The blazes were among 16 burning as of Friday across California.
For Lake County residents, wildfires have become a way of life.
“It’s stressful. It’s very stressful,” said Rose Geck, a retired Lake County teacher who in 2015 helped manage a donation center for survivors of the Valley Fire. “We’ve been through it, and we know what to do, but that doesn’t make it any easier. We’re on high alert, and we’re worried about our friends who live in the areas where fires are burning. It brings back a lot of memories.”
In and around Cobb, cell phones frequently ping with alerts from area law enforcement agencies offering details about nearby blazes, evacuation orders and shelter openings. The notifications are unnerving but necessary, David Leonard said.
“You have a different perspective after your house has burned down,” he said.
To help ease the stress, the Leonards are taking practical steps toward protecting themselves and the community from blazes that threaten the area now and inevitably will do so in the future. The decks, roofing, porches and other features on their new home are made with materials that resist embers and flames. They are more conscious than ever about how they store firewood and trim trees, and are vigilant about creating “defensible space” around their property.
Cindy Leonard is working with others in the Cobb area on a fire preparedness plan, including helping neighborhoods develop specific plans to ensure that people, property and pets are safe when the next emergency erupts.
“We’ve got to take care of one another, share information,” she said. “If you’re going to live up here, this is the way it has to be.”
The Leonards are pillars in their tightly knit community. David is the principal at Cobb Mountain Elementary School. In the aftermath of the Valley Fire, he worked hard not only to manage his own family’s tragedy but cope with the struggles and emotions of staff members and students who were emotionally traumatized by the disaster.
Cindy, who worked as a server at the iconic Tra Vigne restaurant in St. Helena before the Valley Fire struck, took on the Herculean task of managing the family’s insurance and rebuilding tasks. Maya, a voracious reader and avid musician who attended her father’s school at the time but since has moved to middle school, frequently accompanied her parents to community meetings and events for fire survivors.
The Valley Fire and its aftermath put the Leonard family on an emotional roller coaster that has lasted far longer than they imagined, they said. But for everything that the tragedy took from them, it also had some positive effects. It reinforced life lessons about the importance of family and friends. It taught them resilience. It made them love their little town more than ever.
“Would I want to go through it again? No,” David Leonard said as he sat on the porch of the family’s new home.
“But this situation has really united our community in a way that we didn’t anticipate,” he said. “We all think a lot more about what our community is about, and about individual streets and people and how they are handling everything. The fire energized us that way.”
For others, the Valley Fire was the last straw in a seemingly endless battle with wildfires in the area. Many residents who lost homes left the area rather than deal with the hassle of rebuilding, said county Supervisor Rob Brown. Others decided to forgo rebuilding rental and vacation homes, or were unable to afford to reconstruct houses that lacked insurance.
At least a quarter of homes lost to the fire have either been rebuilt or are in the rebuilding process, said Brown. He said the county has issued between 310 and 350 building permits for single family dwellings since the Valley Fire.
Some residents have been discouraged by construction costs that have soared in light of unprecedented demand for workers and supplies, Brown said. “Before the Valley Fire, you could build a home here for $125 a square foot,” said Brown, a lifelong resident of the area. “Now, it’s $200 to $250 a square foot.”
Many contractors have left the area to take advantage of rebuilding jobs in Sonoma County, where costs average around $400 a square foot, said Brown. “You can hardly find a contractor here, which has slowed things down considerably,” he said.
It all adds up to more misery for Lake County, one of the poorest sections of the state. “We don’t have many resources and our property taxes have gone away, so things are not going to get better any time soon,” said Brown.
The Leonards never want to forget the pain of the past three years, but they do not want to be defined by it, they said.
Every room of their new house has some connection to the old. Each window and door frame contains wood from the fire-ravaged Douglas fir that once held a swing that carried riders up into the sky. Their living room features a print of prancing chickens, a gift from a friend who replaced an identical piece of art that burned in the Valley Fire. The bedrooms hold clothes and used furniture donated to the family after they lost everything.
At times, when they are hosting dinners in their new kitchen, or sipping coffee on the deck while listening to birds sing, or playing music with friends in a backyard populated with newly planted trees, the Leonards can almost forget about everything the Valley Fire has wrought in their community.
Then their phones ding with another fire alert, and their minds go to a darker place:
Will they have to flee Cobb Mountain again?