LOWER LAKE (AP) — A Northern California county known for its large freshwater lake and clothing-optional hot springs resort recently has gained attention for something else: several devastating wildfires that have destroyed hundreds of homes and sent much of its population scrambling for shelter.
Sparsely populated Lake County is among the state’s poorest, with slow-paced rural life that resolves around the outdoors, tourism and a budding wine industry. Its residents are a mix of retirees of modest means, weekenders with second homes, professionals priced out of the Bay Area and people who commute at least an hour over winding two-lane highways to jobs in neighboring Napa and Sonoma counties.
Residents say their community is a resilient one, quick to help out and to rise to a challenge.
“I think we will see a majority of these people building again,” said Melissa Fulton, CEO of the Lake County Chamber of Commerce since 1990. “They will come back, they will build, and they will start all over again.”
The county, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, has been hit hard by wildfires that have ravaged the state this summer, aided by a four-year drought and crispy, dry trees and brush.
In late July, a fire east of the county’s Clear Lake recreation area destroyed 43 homes as it spread across more than 100 square miles. As firefighters drew close to surrounding it, another fire erupted Aug. 9 several miles from the community of Lower Lake.
Fulton said the effect on tourism is unclear, as some summer visitors stayed away and firefighters and others took their place at packed motels.
The latest blaze erupted Saturday, stunning firefighters with its rapid growth and chasing off an estimated 13,000 of its 64,000 residents.
Combined, the fires have wiped out hundreds of homes, including off-the-grid houses perched atop twisting dirt roads, apartment complexes and single-family homes mere blocks from schools.
Middletown served as a shelter for people fleeing earlier fires. But it looked like a ghost town this week with police and emergency personnel patrolling the main highway through it as homes smoldered on either side.
Lake County, dominated by mountains and the largest freshwater lake entirely in California, is spread out, its tiny towns and communities linked by curvy highways. Yet, what happens in one part of the county is keenly felt in other parts because residents are connected through school sports, family, neighbors or jobs.
Since the fires broke out, residents say, the generosity from within and outside the county has been overwhelming.
People delivered truckloads of food to shelters and boarded farm animals and pets for one another.
“It seems like everyone is housing a friend or a neighbor or a relative in their home,” said Clearlake city manager Greg Folsom, who moved from Southern California’s Riverside County for the northern air. “It’s almost like a small town, in a county.”
The latest fire has destroyed nearly 600 homes, including one that belongs to real estate agent Nell Boyer. On Tuesday, she waited with her daughter and neighbors at Lower Lake High School for clearance to check on the remains of her home and the animals she left behind.
Boyer saved 15 cats and two dogs Saturday but left at least 20 more cats roaming the grounds of her 17-acre property. She, too, is a transplant, having fled the Bay Area in 1997.
She described Lake County as both tight-knit but freeing, a place where she can have physical space and feed raccoons and cats and chickens in peace.
“It gets in your blood, having land and not having to answer to your neighbors,” she said. Boyer doesn’t know what to do next.
Annette Lee, executive dean of Yuba College in Clearlake, moved back to the area with her husband in 2006, and they live near her parents. The last two months have been stressful, she said.
“But I’d be surprised if people didn’t rebuild back here,” Lee said. “People are here for a reason, and I would say resilient is a good way to describe them.”