Everywhere are scars of the devastating Valley fire, which exploded in a terrifying, wind- and drought-fueled run to torch 40,000 acres in the first 12 hours and burn 76,000 acres in all as it spread from the mountain community of
It would take at least four lives and consume nearly 1,300 homes, becoming the third-most destructive wildfire in
Victims who returned live in motorhomes, trailers and, in a few cases, tents. At its height, the fire displaced more than 20,000 people. The forest that once shaded and sheltered many of their neighborhoods has been decimated. Cut, charred timber is piled along the road.
The blaze erupted during an already epic fire season and it was followed last month by the Clayton fire, a smaller yet still-destructive blaze authorities said was started by a suspected serial arsonist from nearby
"No other county has seen the intense destruction
Rebirth amid ruin
Yet amid the unprecedented ruin, estimated at
"It will heal," said the longtime
But there is much work to be done given the scale of the destruction, which wiped out whole residential blocks, ruined key businesses and placed life for thousands of
Obstacles to rebuilding
Nearly 2,000 buildings were destroyed in the blaze, including 1,281 homes. It was sparked
Insured losses totaled
Numerous obstacles stand in the way of rebuilding.
Many damaged homes were older, vacation-style cabins constructed without regard for modern fire-safety and septic standards. A large number of the 192 houses lost in
28 percent uninsured
In addition, many residents simply cannot afford to construct new homes. About 28 percent of those who lost homes were uninsured, said
The trend is driven in part by job and housing shortages in the aftermath of the fire, which increased the price of the remaining homes and rental units. At the same time, a glut of burned-out lots has softened land prices. Many have been listed in the
"People bought elsewhere and decided not to rebuild," said
But others are staying. A county survey last February of 350 people who lost their primary residences indicated more than half planned to rebuild. So far, the county has issued about 200 residential building permits for traditional and manufactured homes. Many more are in the pipeline. Construction appears mostly spread among
Some said it's the first new wave of construction in the area since before the onset of the recession a decade ago.
"It's sort of a silver lining," Toye said. "Hopefully it will sustain itself."
McGuire, who has been on the front lines of recovery efforts along with Brown and Huchingson, said he's secured money for the
The senator said other wildfires over the past 13 months -- including the Clayton and last year's Rocky and
"That's why we're working every day to get resources," said McGuire, whose
Millions raised to help
Financial aid has poured in from government and private sources. Local charities raised more than
"If you drive through you'll see construction breaking out all over," Huchingson said.
The sight was beautiful and horrifying at the same time -- "almost mesmerizing," Ledson said. "This was Armageddon."
As the flames died down, Ledson said, there was "a moment of silence, and I said, 'We're rebuilding.'"
Her husband, 73, disagreed at first, but then changed his mind and never looked back. They hope to be in their new home for
But so far they are the exception on their road,
Ledson said she looks forward to her neighbors returning, but has never felt lonely. The couple once lived more than a mile from their nearest neighbor in
In fact, they've enjoyed being able to yell for their cat in the middle of the night and being able to hoot and holler at the top of their lungs during football games.
"We joke 'Quiet, you'll wake the neighbors,'" she said, laughing.
Battling red tape
On a desolate street in
"I wake up still and feel like just driving away, selling the lot," said Swint, 64. "I think a lot of people feel that way."
Frustration with red tape is dogging the rebuilding process for many victims. Permit approval is taking four to six weeks following the submission of completed applications.
Dixon described rebuilding as an endless exchange "with insurance companies and mortgage companies" and county planning officials.
County takes big tax hit
County planners are making efforts to streamline the process but stress that they can't bypass regulations on construction near waterways.
The county also can't afford to hire more processors. Recovery costs topped
In addition, the county expects to lose
"This year we won't have that distinction," Brown said. "It has really broken us."
State costs include a
Overall economic costs, including losses to infrastructure, total roughly
The Valley fire was the state's first billion-dollar fire since
"It was clearly a big event," said Bowen. "For a state that is historically one of the more active in terms of wildfire damage, it played into the stereotype, unfortunately."
The four people known to have died in the fire were caught in their homes or fleeing their neighborhoods.
A fifth victim is suspected to have been killed in the blaze, although no remains have been found.
He has not been seen or heard from since, according to an investigation report of the Valley fire.
Road to better days
One bright spot in the recovery is the 12-mile stretch of roadway --
The fire's heat melted much of the asphalt. Additional damage came from cars abandoned to burn on the roadway and toppled power lines. Flames took out signs and wooden guardrail posts and melted plastic culverts.
It took five months for crews working 12-hour days, seven days a week, just to clear the dead and dying trees. Then the highway was rebuilt, repaved and restriped. The smooth, black surface is a symbol for some in the region of better days ahead.
"It rides nice, doesn't it?" said
Other rebuilding projects are yet to get underway and appear daunting. They include a planned consolidation of several small water supply systems in
A first phase could open for guests later this fall.
County roads suffered about
Huchingson said there's no point in doing the roadwork until other infrastructure projects are done.
"You'd just have to repair them again," she said.
At the same time,
The state cleared 1,100 properties at a cost of about
"We're still in the early stages of recovery," Huchingson said. "There's so much to do. Hopefully we'll be making tremendous strides at the three-year mark. But infrastructure will be slow."
At the same time, "it's an opportunity to make the community better than before," she said.
Many fire victims share that hope.
More than 500 homes were destroyed in
He estimated 20 of the houses lost have been rebuilt, including his own.
"Everybody's busy who wants to be busy," Thornton said. "Lots of work here and most of the builders are local."
But like other southern
Although the business district remained largely intact, there are fewer people shopping in local stores, Thornton said, relaying a concern shared by merchants.
"You've got to have customers," he said. "That's where we're short."
Across town, with classes back in session, the lunch bell rings at
"Enrollment is a lot better than we thought it would be," he said.
"We're working hard to keep an even keel."
Also, his oldest daughter was packed to leave for college at
He lost irreplaceable keepsakes, including wedding pictures.
He and his family live in a travel trailer on their property while their home is being rebuilt. Roderick said he promised his wife it would be bigger and better as a condition of remaining in
"Fingers crossed for
Meanwhile, Brown, like many of his county colleagues, has spent nearly every day working to address problems related to the Valley fire.
His cellphone rings almost constantly with calls from constituents seeking help. Among his priorities are cutting down the dead trees. They remind everyone of the fire, and they're dangerous.
"I think the recovery is going really well," Brown said.
"Some people think we should be rebuilding 1,280 homes right away. We're not. But I think we're going at a good pace. It's one we can manage with our staff and gives local contractors the work. I couldn't be more proud of the community they are rebuilding."
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