A year ago today, the Valley fire made its destructive tear through this rural swath of southern
The single-story house that Haskett and Ahart have rebuilt on their 1/3 -acre lot was the first non-prefab home to be completed in the fire's wake, a sign of the revival that many residents, business people and government officials here desperately seek and support.
"We came every night after work to see the progress," Haskett said.
Around them, where dozens of homes once stood, are roughly graded lots where owners' plans remain in question. Much the same patchwork extends across the 120 square miles burned by the Valley fire. It roared to life in the early afternoon of
By the time it was fully contained in mid-October, it had killed at least four people -- a fifth person remains missing -- destroyed 1,281 homes and 1,955 structures in all, making it the state's third-most destructive fire, with damage estimated at
It was the largest of four big blazes that have raged across this drought-parched landscape in the past 13 months -- including the 4,000-acre Clayton fire last month. Together they carved out an uneven path of ruin, leveling whole blocks in places but leaving homes on many others untouched.
The region's bid at recovery appears similarly spotty and slow-going, as crisis-weary residents wrestle with the decision to rebuild, staring down a warren of financial challenges, planning decisions and bureaucratic hurdles. Many who have vowed to return still live in recreational vehicles parked on bare lots. Those who've secured building permits display them like the hard-won trophies they are.
"What's bringing people back here are the people," said
By June, 1,848 insurance claims, totaling more than
Yet only about 199 residential building permits had been issued at last count, including 47 for manufactured houses. Only 22 projects in total have been completed.
For-sale signs, in some areas, reflect a growing wave of properties coming on the market, listed by those who would leave the rebuilding to someone else, according to
Most residents know someone driven out of the county by terror and grief caused by the fire. Many have simply given up on the region, unable to face the frustration and uncertainty of rebuilding after so long a dislocation, or unwilling to confront reminders of what was.
"My home was a double lot with a beautiful view of the mountain across from me. It all burned up," said Chambers, 64.
But it's a nice property, and someone from outside the area, who doesn't know how it used to be, may enjoy the new landscape, he said. "They won't look around and see the ghosts of what was," he said.
Among the various factors affecting the choice dominating life in this region -- rebuild or relocate -- money is chief among them. More than a quarter of those who lost their primary residences were uninsured, according to county officials, and others weren't insured to the levels they would need to completely rebuild.
Modern land-use regulations present significant obstacles in communities originally built during a more permissive era -- affecting
Some who rented or owned second homes have chosen not to bother with rebuilding, and still others decided to settle elsewhere, given the opportunity, due to age, declining family size or other life circumstances. Some of the properties left behind were bank-owned,
In a county survey of 350 people who had lost their primary residences in the fire, 20 percent of respondents said they would not be rebuilding, though six months have passed since then. A quarter weren't sure of their plans in February when the survey was conducted. About 55 percent expected to build anew on their parcels, though their stated time lines already have proved optimistic.
"It's a common expectation, 'We're going to recover really fast, and people are going to be back,'" said Massarelli, who until recently worked in
"Everybody was underinsured," he said.
He said many of the victims with whom he's crossed paths settled with insurers for less than it would actually take to rebuild, though some can dip into reimbursements for belongings lost to the fire.
But perhaps nowhere is there as much uncertainty as in this devastated creekside community of 197 homes, only 19 of which survived the flames. Two of
Built around a quaint 19th century resort, the village is criss-crossed by two creeks, and at least 115 of the original home parcels are too close to the water to accommodate septic tanks under existing state and county regulations, or are simply too small or oddly configured or have the wrong soils.
The community, about 4 miles from
To address those problems and support the area's rebirth, funding plans were unveiled this summer for a new
In the meantime, many residents have voiced frustration with delays, mixed messages and what many feel is misplaced stringency over new building standards.
He's living in a donated RV and kept busy with landscaping tasks, building a cinderblock wall along the property line and planting saplings around his lot.
"I just want to do something. I just want to get going," Werts, 53, said. "The one year is coming up and I don't know where I'm going to be."
But for many, the days ahead provide opportunities for renewal in communities more closely bonded than ever, brought together by shared loss and need.
"They're seeing progress, and they're seeing these beautiful homes -- that it's doable," she said.
"I think it'll be fantastic," said
Across the highway, on
They miss the tall trees that once surrounded their place but have a bountiful vegetable garden they couldn't have grown before, when their backyard was in full shade. And the views from
He and his wife are still working through plans for a new home on their 2-acre
"Every day that I'm there it just makes me feel more at home," he said.
He was thrilled to see his school retain most of its students. The school year started with 146, compared to 163 a year ago.
"I think you have to have that sense of optimism; otherwise this would eat you alive," Leonard said. "It's been a really hard year."
Back in the
"This is really the only neighborhood that's rebuilt to this magnitude," Alexander said.
About 9 miles east, Grizzly Court in the large
In all, this gated community of more 2,300 developed lots and the nearby Rancho subdivision lost a combined 144 homes.
"My tears are never far beneath the surface, and I can only imagine the grief of my neighbors who lost everything," she said. "My life and my psyche were forever changed by this fire. And the heartache has been re-triggered with each and every new fire since."
Ten miles south on
But she said there's joy in the completion of new homes. She recalled one that was about to be occupied by a family with two little girls and lots of pets.
"You can see life coming back into it," said Bacca, 45.
A block or two up
Many others who lost homes in the neighborhood grew up together, so it was painful to see all of those who were displaced, Reyes said.
"It's left a lot of people on edge," she said. "But it's also brought people a lot closer. People look out for each other."
You can reach Staff Writer
An earlier version of this story provided an inaccurate sum for the number of homes destroyed on Grizzly Court in
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