Note: Today I am finally forced to sit down and post the second part of the Valley Fire saga. Last night I traded several San Clemente kids for three Soay sheep and shipped off the last group of does born this year to other breeders on the East coast. In the hassle of loading the kids and unloading the sheep I got between two bucks vying for the same doe. Nothing good can come of that. I was able to get out with only a large bruise on my shin so I am laid up for a day.
Refugees from the Valley Fire: September 13 – 15
We rescued the animals, my neighbor Brenda’s goats and chickens, and my herd of San Clemente does and kids. I had to leave four of the bucks behind because there was not enough room in the trailer.
Just as we got back to the farm a friend of the Schmitz’s came by. He was distressed because the Highway Patrol would not let him into the fire zone to rescue his horse. He had tried every story from needing diabetic medication to his mother’s cat was trapped inside the house. Nothing was working. I told him I had success with the Highway Patrol and that I wanted to check on the goats I had to leave behind. I offered to go with him and talk with the deputies at the blockade.
The intersection of Hwy 53 and 29 outside of Lower Lake was blockaded going to south to Middletown and west to Kelseyville. On the corner there was a crowd of desperate people trying to talk their way into the fire area to rescue their animals or just get back to their homes. It was a crazy scene. People were pleading or arguing with the deputy in charge. I walked up to her and said “I have a truck and I need to get back in to hitch up the horse trailer and get my horse out. Can you help me?” She told me to hold on while she walked off to talk with the other deputies. After a few minutes she told me I could through. I turned to the crowd and said if anyone needs to get into Hidden Valley, to come with me. One man came with me and we walked back to the truck. Here we were strangers brought together by a common goal to rescue our animals.
At PsiKeep the house looked haunted. It even smelled different. Of course it smelled of smoke and ash which hung in the air. But it also smelled of something else, desolation. After all, I had pulled out, left everything behind, walked away. In turn the house was rejecting me. Or maybe it was the scent of curious neighbors wandering through my place.
I set out food and water for the bucks I had to leave behind. Our next stop was inside Hidden Valley where we rescued two white bull dogs. We dropped down to Hwy 29 and drove north to Hofacker Lane to get the horse. We could see why Hwy 29 was closed. All along the highway firemen were setting back fires on the west side of the road in attempt to keep the fire from jumping the highway. There were several places where the fire had jumped but it looked like the firemen had been able to put it out even though it had run up the slopes to the top of the ridge on the east side.
The fire had not reached Eric’s place. He hitched up the horse trailer and his wife was able to catch the horse and we headed home back through the smoke. When we got back to Corky’s farm I discovered that while the horse trailer had double wheels on each side, the tire on one of the wheels on the right side was missing. If that horse had shifted his weight or we had turned too fast the rim of the exposed wheel would had hit the pavement sending up a blast of sparks.
September 14, 2015 An escort into the fire zone
The next day my neighbor Brenda was able to get back into Lake County. She had been on the south end of Middletown when the fire rolled through and was forced to evacuate out Hwy 29 to into Napa.
I do not know if it was frustration or adrenaline from fleeing the fire but we felt we had to do something useful and keep moving. For two days we were able to talk our way into the fire zone. We brought gasoline and supplies to those neighbors who decided to stay and fight the fire if it swept down into Jerusalem Grade. Some people just did not want to leave because they were afraid they would not be allowed back in. Others had people hiked back in. I told them that the story about needing to rescue their horse story seemed to work.
“I’m not gonna lie I need to water my ganja said one neighbor.
By September 15 my story of needing to get into the fire area to rescue livestock was getting thin or perhaps there were too many lootings in Hidden Valley. Regardless, Cal Fire and the CHP closed the road to everyone. They set up an escort system where you had to sign up to receive a number. When your number came up you were escorted into the fire zone and allowed on your property for 15 minutes. Our number was 422 (It is an ominous number according to Brenda who was an ex-cop. It is a threat of murder in the California Penal Code Section 422). At the end of day one they were on number 75 so it looked like we had a long wait. What was even more annoying was that you had to be at the Lower Lake High School gym to wait your number and if your number was called and you were not there you forfeited your turn to be escorted.
It had rained that night and some of us thought that the rain would be putting out the fire. But by morning the Valley Fire had grown by 2,000 more acres. We took the chance and came back to the gym the next afternoon. Lucky for us they were on 385 so we decide to forget the tanks of gasoline and water we were going to bring into Jerusalem Grade and waited our turn in the gymnasium. We found two more people who lived out at the Grade and doubled up so that there were four of us in Brenda’s truck to be escorted.
Sure enough when our number was called and we showed our ID’s through several check stations we were escorted back into the fire zone.
I had made of list of things I wanted to check and get but when we arrived at PsiKeep I was shocked how unfamiliar the place had become. In my last moments here I had walked out the door tearing away everything behind me knowing I may never see this home again. That last step out across the threshold was both terrifying and liberating. In an evacuation once the animals are safe everything was just memories and the things I took with me to hold on to those memories. The things in the back of the car that I took become a burden as I shuffled through those things looking for some clean underwear.
I had tried to be so organized with my list for my 15 minutes of grace but I was stunned how haunted the house had become. I ran downstairs and outside and was shocked to see that someone had thrown four bales of hay into the pen with the goats. All I could think of was a hundred bucks lying out in the rain. Then I realized it was not my hay. I had bought alfalfa and this was orchard grass in the pen. Someone must have come out here to feed and water the goats. Foolish me. I forgot that when I signed up to be escorted I had also signed up to have someone come out and feed the goats which I had to leave behind. Now I felt guilty but I had five minutes to feed the cat, grab my rain hat, a jacket and my pajamas before I had to get back into the truck.
September 18, 2015 Journey to Berryessa
In the scramble at the south of Middletown Brenda had ended up with the medications for a man named Blue, who was one of the evacuees. After several days of trying to get the Red Cross to get the medications out to where he was staying at a place called R Ranch, we decided to make the journey ourselves.
We packed a chain saw, oil, gasoline, water and a tow chain in the back of the pickup. We set off down Morgan Valley Road, the back way to Lake Berryessa, because it would take 4 hours off of the driving time. Maybe it was overkill but we were traveling through the area burnt from the Rocky Fire and we did not want to have to double back if a tree had fallen across the road.
Nothing to the east and nothing to the west. Nothing left that is not burned away.
Our first view of the lake. How far the edge of the lake has retreated due to the drought.
We arrived at R Ranch with the medications for Blue. If you had to evacuate this was the place to be. R. Ranch is time-share vacation site with cabins, swimming pool, horseback riding and a lodge, which supplied meals for the guests. The main room was filled with donations of clothing, pet supplies and shoes. I was finally able to get another pair of shoes to wear instead of the red bowling shoes I had been wearing when I evacuated.
We snacked on some fruit and energy bars at the lodge and set out on the long drive back to Lower Lake.
Doldrums while the hills are burning
I spent almost 10 days at the Schmitz’ farm. During that time I had little knowledge of what was happening with the fire. I had no Internet access and the news was sketchy at best. It was reported that four people had died in this fire and at one point a fifth mortality was reported in a shoot out in Hidden Valley but that proved to be untrue.
In desperation to find out what was happening Brenda and I drove to a meeting at Kelseyville High School on September 17.
The cafeteria was filled with evacuees who were staying at the high school, which had been converted to an evacuation center. The journey was a disappointment. We learned nothing new about the fire. But I did manage to snag out of the trash a current copy of the fire map.
What was disturbing was that an area of the fire, which was still uncontained, was progressing slowly up the other side of the ridge behind my place. When it was finally contained it was only a half mile from PsiKeep.
During this time Brenda and I made ourselves useful by helping around the farm.
We also made forays into the fire area to bring supplies to the neighbors. The road was still closed but we shuttled supplies across the barricade.
At last the Highway patrol opened the road and we were able to return home. But what awaited us was the unbelievable extent of this disaster.
To Be Continued: