Regional News

Latest Lake County fire demonstrates how raw residents feel

July 18, 2017 11:17 am

POSTED: JUL 18 2017 05:09AM PDT

UPDATED: JUL 18 2017 05:34AM PDT

LOWER LAKE, Calif. (Debora Villalon/KTVU) A fire in Lake County Monday afternoon demonstrated how residents are still raw from the devastating fires of the past two years.

“I’m sure there were hundreds of 911 calls, honestly,” CalFire Division Chief Greg Bertelli told KTVU.  ”When there’s a smoke column in the sky, everybody’s concerned and on high alert.”

The Murphy Fire broke out alongside Highway 29 at 2:45 p.m., about three miles south of Lower Lake.

It grew to 40 acres before crews stopped it.

But for some people, every fire, no matter the size, brings feelings of fear and vulnerability.

“I know people who lost their homes and some lost two homes,” Misty deGroff of Clearlake told KTVU, as she waited out the highway closure at a pizza parlor in Lower Lake.

“I got a text at work, telling me there was a fire at Hofacker and Highway 29, near where my mom lives, and asking me if she was home, and if she was okay,” recounted deGroff, her voice still emotional.

“My mom has been evacuated three times in two years,” she explained.

Lake County residents have witnessed how swiftly a small grass fire can blow up into a firestorm, when conditions are right.

But the quick CalFire response on the ground, and in the air, kept the fire relatively small, and away from property: 200 homes and ranches, a winery, and horse stable. No evacuations were necessary.

“If there’s smoke, there’s panic, and people are looking for information,” Lake County Fire Chief William Sapeta told KTVU.

Sapeta notes, residents can’t help but be traumatized, after the Valley fire of 2015 ravaged Middletown, destroying almost 1300 homes, and killing 4 people.

Then came the Clayton fire last August which overran Lower Lake and destroyed almost 200 homes plus several historic buildings downtown.

“2015 and 2016 were devastating to us,” declared Chief Sapeta, “the Rocky fire, the Jerusalem, the Valley, the Clayton, so there’s a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder going on my community.”

The chief estimates county-wide just 1 in 5 fire victims have rebuilt.

On Quarterhorse Lane in Lower Lake, one house sits like an island amid weed-covered lots.

“I guess a lot of them aren’t coming back,” said homeowner Michele Vignau, pointing to neighboring parcels, abandoned, and some with “for sale” signs on them.

“We just do what we can do what we can do. But it’s pretty sad to see everything gone, so fast, and scary.”

Monday, when fire broke out again, DJ’s Pizza in Lower Lake turned to Facebook to encourage those who couldn’t get home, “come inside, wait it out with us, we’ve been through this before, it will be okay.”

“If they need reassurance, or to relax, somewhere to wait not too far outside town, they can come here and see how it goes,” explained server Nicholas Carte.

Misty deGroff was grateful for the respite, waiting with her two children.

But she realizes the summer and fall will likely bring more fires, and dredge up more tears too.

“It’s always heartbreaking because I see all my friends who lost their homes before,” deGroff explained, “and I see the anxiety they go through and the fear, and it’s hard.”