If you’ve been following along, you’ve heard that my 85-year-old mother fled California’s devastating Valley Fire with just the clothes on her back on Saturday. She lives in one of the Ground Zero communities that were hardest hit, Hidden Valley Lake. Late Saturday afternoon, the fire suddenly flared up, whipped by hot 30 mph winds, and with five minutes to spare, the sheriffs rousted people out of their houses and told them to get on the one road out of town, a two lane blacktop named Route 29. My mother, who has some night blindness and is not supposed to drive outside her gated community, ended up getting in her truck and traveling in a convoy through flames to get up north to Clear Lake. The good news was that she got there safely, the bad news was that one of the most destructive and unpredictable wildfires in Lake County history was now between her and me down in Sonoma. It was frustrating that for several days, I couldn’t get around the fire to get her. But I was grateful that she’d managed to get herself evacuated. It wouldn’t have happened without some wonderful people.
The first were three people that we’ve dubbed The Barn Angels. My mother has been an enthusiastic horsewoman for most of her life. And when the sheriffs ordered her to evacuate, her first thought was to head back to the barn and get her horse. Forget that she doesn’t have a horse trailer and she couldn’t have taken her horse anywhere. She at least wanted to set Little Joe free to run ahead of the flames. The sheriff wouldn’t let her go, but she would have scrambled over the fence and evaded the law as well as an 85 year old with two artificial knees could if it hadn’t been for a barn friend who called her and said she’d take care of Joe. That got Mom in her truck and into the convoy.
Turns out the barn friend, Cheryl, along with two other friends, Butch and Pam, headed back to the stables and began trying to strategize how to get the horses out. They were having difficulty loading panicking horses when the flames made the roads out inaccessible. As the wonderfully named Butch said, in true Western style, “That’s when we decided we had to make our stand.” For the next few days, the trio stood guard at the barn with garden hoses, extinguishing flaming embers as they landed on the roof. Luckily CBS Sacramento 13 got wind of the dynamic trio and featured them on the evening news. Click the link below to view it. Oh, and the horse who keeps mugging for the camera and sticking out his tongue? That’s Little Joe.
As wonderful as Butch, Pam and Cheryl are, they are not the only heroes of this fire focusing on animals. This area of Lake County is rural and ranching country. There are probably more horses than people and that’s not counting the goats, chickens, cattle and llamas. While many people were able to flee with horses in trailers, many more had to set their animals loose and hope for the best. The wonderful news is that those animals are getting themselves to safe areas and there are legions of people outside the fire perimeter gathering animals, housing them and trying, through social media, to reconnect them with their owners. There are a growing number of success stories. Many are featured on this Facebook page.
Lake County has always been a tight-knit community, but it has been a series of isolated tight-knit communities that didn’t usually have much to do with each other. If such a devastating event as this fire can be said to have a positive side, it has brought together these clannish areas to more of a Lake County identity. The outpouring of support and solidarity from other parts of the county have been astounding. Communities have pulled together and reached out to other communities. When the rebuilding happens, I think Lake County will be a stronger place for it.
I only have my mother to look to for an example. She had a great little group of friends who were mostly her barn friends. When she evacuated up north, she ended up in a little lakeside motel with a group of fellow evacuees. They all bonded to the point where, when I called her to tell her I was taking the long circuitous route up to get her back to Sonoma, she refused to go. She and her new best friends were comforting each other, sharing information and creating a little ad hoc support group. It was only when members started heading off to far-flung family and friends that Mom agreed to be taken to Sonoma.
When Louis and I arrived to take her and her truck back to Sonoma, I was a little shocked. She’d been in a motel with no toiletries and one change of clothes — except for some items she’d picked up from the donation bin in the WalMart parking lot. Frankly, she looked like a bit of a hobo. But a happy hobo. She’s got an address book full of new friends. AND SOMEONE TAUGHT HER HOW TO TEXT! The whole circuitous way back to Sonoma, she was texting everyone to let them know where she was. It was like being with a teenager. Next thing she’ll be taking selfies and photos of her lunches. But she’s energized and seems ten years younger with plans for how she’ll help her new friends and neighbors who weren’t as lucky as she is to have a house still standing.
The official word is that it may be four days or longer before Hidden Valley Lake and Middletown will allow residents back in. When they do, I’ll be taking Mom back home and will get an assessment of which of her friends and acquaintances have lost the most and who could use what. I think the real needs will come when rebuilding starts. I’ll give another plug for this fund which completely administered locally — by the local credit union, the local newspaper and supervised by two of the areas State Senators. The fund is pledged to make 100% of donations available to victims. There are many easy ways to donate to this fund — on-line, at local donation points and at any Redwood Credit Union office.
I’ll keep you all posted on the situation once we can get back into the community. And after I leave, I’m sure my mother will be texting me updates.
Top strip photo and the photo at the top of this post are by fearless Sonoma photographer Tenaya Fleckenstein who has amazing shots of the fire here.