Evacuation orders lifted in Lake County, more residents return home

With the River fire stalled and the Ranch fire receding into wilderness, another half-dozen Lake County towns were allowed to repopulate Wednesday.

With the exception of Spring Valley in Clearlake Oaks- where mop-up continues- Clear Lake's north shore communities are returning to normal. 

It is a happy homecoming for some, but not all. 

"It's everything they built, and they got out with some pictures and papers," said Rob Young, surveying the ruins of his parents home on Elk Mountain Road in Upper Lake.

Across the road, Young's sister's place, home to a family of four, also burned down. 

Yet his own house, 100 yards from his parents, is intact, which he attributes to the vagaries of the wind, and having slightly more clearance from the trees.

"My folks are all right," said Young, " but they're sad and they can't wait to get back up here. They left the area, and they've only seen the pictures I've taken."

The Mendocino Complex, which includes both fires, has destroyed 119 homes, and almost as many barns and outbuildings,by Cal-Fire's latest count. 

Rob Young's parents had been in their two-story home for more than a dozen years. 

"Their garage over there, it had a beautifully restored Pontiac Firebird parked in it," said Young. 
In communities where people were uprooted, and flung different directions, Wednesday was an evening of bittersweet reunions, and survival stories. 

Residents who didn't hole-up at home or head to a local shelter, friend or relative's house, often drove far for a motel room.  

At Hi-Way Market in Upper Lake, owner Pat Lynch was at the register, greeting customers.

Lynch did not close his store during the evacuation, and his regular shoppers were replaced by firefighters and law enforcement. 

"Everyone is more than elated to be back home," said Lynch, "but I've been hearing complaints about spending thousands of dollars on hotel rooms and meals." 

Customer Jim Callaway shared his experience: witnessing 300 foot flames on his charred 80 acre property.

"Like a nightmare, you still can't comprehend it, it's mind-boggling," said Callaway, who sheltered with his wife in their car for several nights, as 3 Calaveras County hotshots fought to save their home in Bachelor Valley.  

"You know your home is gone because you seen it burn, but it really didn't," smiled Callaway," because when we got back up there, there it was, and those guys had a big grin on their face, and said there it is!"

What did he say to the firefighters? 
"I gave them big hugs and kisses, promised them anything they want, anytime, anywhere," responded Callaway, breaking into laughter. 

Lake County's Sheriff can see and hear the relief everywhere he goes. 
"You guys did an amazing job," shouted a woman, spotting Brian Martin.

"I love you from the bottom of my heart!," she exclaimed.  

"You know this isn't a single incident, it's not even the second or third incident," Sheriff Martin told KTVU, "this is the fourth year in a row we've had evacuations that affected large parts of our community". 

And evacuees say there were lessons in the experience. 
"You find out who your friends are in this kind of situation," said Jamie Lynn Henry as she unpacked her car in Lower Lake.

"People you didn't think cared, really show their true colors and do care about you, so it's pretty cool."
Henry will always remember how the two fires started on her 23rd birthday, and how she and her parents packed-up, then slept in shifts. 

"I slept in my car with an alarm going off every ten minutes, so I could look up at the ridge," Henry recounted, "and if the flames had come over, we were going to go, but they hadn't yet."  

When it was finally time to go, Henry's worst fears were for the walnut orchards in her family for generations. 

"This place has been in my family for 100 years, so it's one thing to lose a house and stuff, I can live with that," she explained,"but if I had lost the ranch, and my family's history, I don't even know how I would feel." 

Of course, for those whose homes were lost, it will be a prolonged ordeal and a different recovery.
Rob Young is glad his parents were adequately insured, but he fears many are not.

"Contractors are hard to come by because they make more money in Santa Rosa and the Bay Area, so it's going to be hard to rebuild in Lake County. We also don't have a lot of rentals to go around, so it's going to hurt our economy and hurt our families."

The Valley Fire, in and around Middletown in 2015, destroyed about 1200 homes, and fewer than 2 in 10 have been rebuilt.

Hurdles involving insurance, permits, and financing in a  fire-prone county have been impossible for many.

The Mendocino Complex fire, topping 300,000 acres is almost four times the size of the Valley Fire, and now the largest fire in California history. 

Friday, a local assistance center will open at the Senior Center in Lucerne, to assist victims with their losses, as they begin to move forward.