In September 2015, the Valley Fire burned more than 76,000 acres across Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties in northern California. Claiming four lives and destroying nearly 2,000 homes, apartments, businesses and other structures, it was one of the most deadly and damaging fires in the state’s history. It’s also not an anomaly this year.
The Valley Fire, along with the Rocky and Jerusalem fires — all three of which burned between June and September 2015, in a 25 mile radius in southern Lake County, California near Napa — scorched more than 150,000 acres and razed thousands of buildings, though that damage is only a portion of the more than half-a-million acres in California destroyed by fires in 2015 alone.
“We’re going through a unique crisis,” says Peter Luchetti ’77, whose generations-old family ranch in Lake County lost three employee homes and two 19th-century barns.
As KQED, the northern California NPR/PBS affiliate, reported in September, “El Niño conditions have spawned an active Pacific hurricane season. Just as the Valley Fire was getting started, a dying hurricane named Linda was still pumping moist air into the upper atmosphere, well north along the California coast.”
The Valley Fire, Luchetti says, was extraordinarily dangerous “as a consequence of El Niño warming up, the rare and unprecedented high winds, and the late summer drought conditions.”
Luchetti recalls seeing the fire about 15 miles away from the ranch on Cobb Mountain, at about 1:30 p.m. on Sept. 12. By 6:30 p.m. that evening, it had reached the ranch, 3,500 acres of which burned in just two hours, with flames climbing up to 200 feet in the air. Ranch hands from Luchetti’s ranch and neighboring ranches were stranded and left to fend for themselves, sheltering in place. Calls to the fire command center indicated that there were no resources available to save the ranches, as all available resources were dedicated to saving nearby Middletown, which ultimately lost 50 percent of its structures to the fire.
While the Luchetti ranch, like many, had taken precautions against the potential of wildfires — with metal roofs, hardwood decking, caulked eaves and joints, a 100-foot radius of bare dirt around the main house and barns — Luchetti reflects that “the only way an emergency strategy can work is with people, but how much risk can you take with people’s lives? The fire was moving at a spread rate so fast, so vicious and aggressive, that the focus was on saving lives and evacuating.”
The catastrophic impact of the fire became apparent initially when the first responders — the six-man wild-land attack team from Cal Fires helicopter 104, who landed at the fire’s edge within 30 minutes of its start — were immediately burned over in a pine grove and had to be evacuated by Life Flight to the UC Davis burn center with life-threatening injuries. “This is when the Cal Fire chief in charge decided that the first response was going to be about savings lives,” Luchetti says. “For the next 24 hours, resources were dedicated to life-saving evacuations and saving the town.”
Local residents, he recalls, “couldn’t drive a car fast enough on the gravel and dirt country road. Our neighbors tried to escape but on the way their tires caught on fire. Their truck burned, their horses burned, their dogs burned.”
Luchetti, his neighbors and the ranch’s employees waited out the fire in their vehicles on the ranch’s 250-acre permanent pasture, watching the flames, listening to propane tanks exploding in the distance. They did not see the first emergency responder until midnight, and then the emphasis shifted to searching the backcountry for friends and neighbors who had not yet been accounted for. During the all-night search, they were forced to cross the rough terrain in off-road vehicles and navigate downed telephone poles and trees with chainsaws, to find these friends and neighbors.
The fire spread through Middletown, burning much of the main street, but by the following Monday and Tuesday, nearly 5,000 firefighters from all over the country, with support from air tankers and bulldozers, were extinguishing hotspots and building containment lines. On the Luchetti ranch alone, the Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and Oregon Hot Shot firefighting teams from the United States Forest Service had deployed along with strike and structure protection teams from Cal Fire and local communities from across the state. A fire fighter and utility worker from as far away as New York City joined the efforts.
These resources and responders remained on the fire lines around the clock for the next four weeks — “a no-holds-barred, unqualified response without bureaucratic delay or hesitation” that “restores one’s sense of confidence in our country and community,” Luchetti says.
During the fire, he explains, “every telephone pole from my ranch to town was burned down — 840 burned down — wires and transformers lying in the road. Hundreds of downed trees and burned cars on the road. By Tuesday, we had 1,700 members of the utility company lined up in the church parking lot. They worked around the clock and replaced 840 poles and had the power on within six days. People started raising money all over the North Coast — FEMA, wineries, ranches, the Red Cross, churches, the state, the governor, the U.S. Department of Rural Development — everyone, all trying to help hit the reset button for people who lost homes.”
Following the initial four weeks of firefighting, President Barack Obama and California Governor Jerry Brown declared the area a National Disaster. FEMA has approved nearly $10 million in relief funds for victims of the Valley and Butte fires (the Butte Fire burned simultaneously in Calaveras County). But Luchetti, who has been working to remove debris and hazardous materials from the ranch to prepare for rebuilding in the spring, notes the lingering challenges and questions raised by the vicious fires that have decimated the region.
“What’s happened on the ground is really quite amazing,” he says, “but with the recovery comes a lot of complicated questions. A lot of people don’t have the money or insurance for recovery, which is a big worry. Are these people global warming refugees? In a rural, relatively poor area of California, where 60 percent of the community rents as opposed to owns their housing, there is a fear that the fire refugee analogy might play out as a long term burden and decline in the community. Many families are moving out and most likely won’t return. Does a one-in-500-year drought and the third worst fire in California history ultimately validate the climate refugee story-line? And if so what does this mean for the future of impacted communities in the United States and around the world?”
As the New York Times noted just prior to the Valley Fire, the El Niño rains expected this winter might be less of a blessing for California’s historic drought than another challenge from Mother Nature, “flooding rivers and streets without making an appreciable difference in the state’s long-term water shortage — an unhappy possibility that might not come across amid the celebratory reports of water on the way.”
With winter rain on the horizon, Middletown and Clearlake are still hosting FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers. Lake County’s recovery task force is still working with county, state and federal officials — including the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Geologic Survey — along with tribal representatives, to help the community get back on its feet. There is still significant debris cleanup, as KQED reported in October, both in preparation for rebuilding as well as for a wet winter.
But the can-do spirit that has bolstered the recovery highlights the fact that “the collective will of this country and our communities to provide an effective first response remains very powerful and is something we should all recognize and take pride in,” Luchetti says. “A catastrophe like the Valley Fire can be a liberating opportunity for growth and change and we can project into the future and mitigate climate refugee risk among other challenges facing our communities.”