Fast-moving Valley fire flattens Lake County hamlets

Video: Mountain town of Cobb destroyed by Valley Fire

Residents return to find their homes destroyed, vow to rebuild. Video by Ryan Lillis,
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Residents return to find their homes destroyed, vow to rebuild. Video by Ryan Lillis,

Shane Barnett sat on his porch Saturday, smoking and enjoying an unusually warm afternoon. And then the wind started gusting.

It was at that moment that Barnett noticed the fire burning across the small valley behind his home, maybe a mile away. Then came the knock at the door from a sheriff’s deputy with a warning: Barnett had three minutes before the fire got there.

And three minutes later, it was all gone.

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The home Barnett just bought in March. The house next door, where Mike Greenslate and Patti Murphy lived for 13 years, spending their evenings in their hot tub watching shooting stars race across the sky. And just about every other home in this mountain hamlet of 1,800 residents.

“They always show people on the news running out with a box of belongings,” Barnett said Tuesday, standing on an ash-covered hill above where his house used to stand. “I didn’t leave with a box of anything.”

Barnett’s home, nestled against the side of a canyon wall, was perhaps the first to be destroyed by the massive Valley fire that has leveled an estimated 1,000 other houses since Saturday. The fire has also killed one woman and charred 67,000 acres of dense forest in the mountains of Lake, Sonoma and Napa counties.

Firefighters said they are making progress on the blaze, but expect the effort to last several more days.

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Returning to his home for the first time on Tuesday, Barnett looked out at the valley for which the fire is named and his lip quivered. All he could salvage from his home was a page from his late grandmother’s Bible, a page that contains the famous tale of David and Goliath.

“It’s like losing your family,” Barnett said. “Everything I owned is gone.”

Greenslate and Murphy were taken to their home by Greenslate’s son, Gavin, a firefighter with the Yocha Dehe Fire Department in Yolo County’s Capay Valley. The couple were in Lakeport, about 20 miles away, when the fire broke out. They tried to race back to their home, but encountered a neighborhood burning out of control and sped back off the mountain.

“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet that I basically have nothing,” Murphy said, adding all she has left are the clothes she was wearing and a pair of prescription sunglasses.

Greenslate had cleared a large area of defensible space around the home, leaving an elderberry tree and a small orchard of apple trees. But the house, built in the 1960s, didn’t stand a chance.

“This fire didn’t run, it teleported,” his son said.

It was a fire so intense, it evaporated the water from Greenslate and Murphy’s pool. A fire so searing, bricks that once supported their garage were still hot three days later. A fire so destructive, it melted the tires off their cars and turned most of their belongings into a light, white powder.

The only structure in Cobb that appeared to survive was the clubhouse of the community pool. Up Highway 175 less than a mile, the tiny village of Hobergs was also in ruins. Loch Lomond. Anderson Springs. Middletown. Hidden Valley. All were flattened or severely damaged by a firestorm that raged into a 40,000-acre inferno in just a few hours.

The toll includes Hoberg’s Resort and Spa, a 130-year-old retreat that once attracted celebrities, movie stars and professional athletes. All that’s left of the resort is an ash-covered foundation and the chimneys.

The villages in these mountains above Clear Lake are a collection of secluded settlements. Some, like the area around the New Age health resort Harbin Hot Springs, have drawn expatriates from the Bay Area seeking a rural, affordable life with a touch of 1960s freedom. The resort with clothing-optional facilities was gutted.

Not far away, devotees of the Adidam spiritual movement fled their homes, many of which were destroyed. Their sanctuary has a camel farm and is the epicenter of devotees to a guru named Adi Da Samraj; it remained standing.

At times, the fire’s path of destruction seemed almost random.

In Loch Lomond, a village not far from Cobb full of family retreats and cottages, a line of undamaged homes stood Tuesday. A short drive up the road, however, the fire left a wide, black path as it raced through the hills, gutting several homes.

Cal Fire said Tuesday the Loch Lomond area was still the center of an active firefight. The day before, helicopters dropped loads of water on a fire burning in the woods; the effort saved a home.

Diane Whitson stopped by her daughter’s home in Loch Lomond on Tuesday to check on the property. Three homes across the street were destroyed, but her daughter’s home was fine.

Whitson has lived in the area for more than 30 years. Her home was also spared and she never evacuated. She remembers another huge fire hitting the area long ago, when she was a kid. It was just a matter of time before it happened again.

“You’re living in the wilderness; it’s like a huge park,” she said. “People think about fire all the time. But not something to this extent.”

The Valley fire

How the fire expanded after its start on September 12:

Map of Valley fire 
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