One year after the fires, Concow is just starting to rebuild
A full year has passed since wildfires devastated the tiny community of Concow. But if you drive up there today and stand on the slope of the foothills on the north side of the Concow basin, you would think the fires had just happened yesterday.
Little is left of the dense forest that once dominated the countryside. In its place, in every direction, are sad groves of charcoal poles that offer no protection from the summer heat.
Scattered about this depressing landscape are people trying to hang on. Some are living in trailers amid the destruction, while others are beginning to rebuild on sunburned parcels that have been almost completely clear-cut.
This was the frontline. This is where last summer’s Camp Fire started devouring Concow on the morning of July 8. By the time the flames died down, the firestorm had taken one man’s life, wiped out 202 homes and destroyed 60,000 acres.
The Concow fires were far from the only ones in California last summer. In fact, by early August more than 6,000 lightning strikes had conspired with drought and wind to create 2,006 fires that took 15 lives, destroyed hundreds of homes and scorched 1.2 million acres up and down the state.
Singling out Concow isn’t meant to suggest that the loss of homes in that one small area caused any greater suffering than did the loss of the 21 homes destroyed in Oroville’s Ophir Fire or the 87 burned down in the arson-sparked Humboldt Fire in lower Paradise.
But as a community, Concow was hit harder than any other in the North State. More than half of this small community’s residents lost their homes. A year later, the vast majority of them have barely begun rebuilding.
Last summer’s smoke has cleared out of the valley and out of the minds of many in the North State. And residents and volunteers have done a Herculean amount of recovery work in the fire’s aftermath. But, in ways both glaring and subtle, the fire is still burning for the people of Concow.
“I just had to come back.”
Sarah Salisbury was in Beijing when the winds changed. She remembers sitting in a hotel room in early July 2008 reading e-mail updates from a fellow Concow resident about the status of the wind and the fires.
“[I came] back four days after the fire,” she says.
We’re in her dusty Suburu station wagon winding back and forth down Concow Road with the windows down. It’s a fairly hot Sunday afternoon in late June, one year after the Camp Fire. As she drives, Salisbury talks about moving to this rugged area during the 1970s—building her own home, birthing her daughter in it, and happily living off the grid with her fellow “Mountain Family” back-to-the-landers.
As we head deeper into Concow on what Salisbury calls the “Devastation Tour,” it’s striking how bucolic the scenery is. There are signs of fire, for sure: some charcoal-covered trees felled back from the road in spots, and farther on huge swaths of brown cut into mountain slopes in the distance. But the immediate environment is surprisingly lush. The houses along the first few miles of Concow Road are intact and surrounded by green, and the area around the southeastern shore of Concow Reservoir is pristine.
As we turn right onto Yellow Wood Road and drive away from the main road, however, the view changes dramatically. We make our way up the bumpy dirt road, and the fire’s wrath shows itself. Grasses, a few seedlings and some wildflowers are poking up, but from this valley up toward the small mountain pass where Yellow Wood comes to a T with Kakini Road, almost everything is dead.
Only two homes back here survived, thanks to various factors that included maintained defensible space, fire-resistant metal roofs, fire gel (a last-minute retardant applied to the outside of a structure) and what can only be called pure luck.
The naturally effusive Salisbury’s voice sobers as she surveys the condition of properties belonging to friends and neighbors. One man has restored a fire-damaged section of his house, and down the road a car is parked in the middle of burned-out pad. One surprisingly shady lot has “don’t cut” marked on a tree, while a particularly devastated parcel is marked by a giant pile of burned-out logs.
“Look at the size of her tomato plants!” Salisbury says, astonished at how a friend’s garden is flourishing in the midst of so much burned-out vegetation.
Salisbury points to the property of a friend, 17-year Concow resident June McLane. Save for a few scorched trees and an out-of-place-looking newly built shed (one of 13 sheds built for community members via the Concow Phoenix Project/Chico State Construction Management Department’s Adopt-a-Shed program), the lot is bare.
Salisbury reverently remembers McLane’s woodworking expertise and how beautiful—inside-and-out—her carefully hand-built little cabin was.
McLane is currently house-sitting for friends near the entrance to Yellow Wood Road, and on our way back down Salisbury and I stop in.
“It was kind of like my masterpiece,” the plain-spoken McLane says about her 200-square-foot home. With arthritis taking hold, the 59-year-old woodworker had saved the best for last, creating an exquisite retirement cabin for herself. “I wanted to hang up my hammer.”
McLane is not going to rebuild. She just paid her deposit and first month’s rent on a rental in “the city,” meaning Chico.
“I gave myself a year to make my decision. I wanted to be realistic, rational.”
While McLane seems open to a new adventure in a new environment, she knows she’ll be starting her life over again: “Down there, I don’t have anything.”
The fire and losing her home weren’t the hardest part of the past year—“I didn’t really feel a lot of emotion,” McLane says. “It’s just gone.” The real challenge for her has been dealing with the frustrating aftermath, particularly with insensitive loggers who took her trees and left her property a debris-strewn, rutted mess, and with Butte County.
The county has waived fees for residents who had permitted homes before the fires. But for those like McLane, whose homes weren’t permitted, pulling together the thousands of dollars in permits to start over is prohibitive, especially given costs of having to clean up one’s property and paying for life’s essentials while doing it.
In March, with input from community members and the Concow Phoenix Project (of which Salisbury is a founding member), Butte County adopted Title 25, a limited-density owner-built housing code, for the Concow area for a three-year trial period.
Tailored for rural areas and already in effect in places with housing in similar terrain, such as Mendocino and Humboldt counties, the code relaxes the requirements for things like hiring a contractor, required room dimensions and acceptable materials, thus allowing owners to design and build their own homes as well as mill wood from trees damaged during the fires. In addition, it gives homeowners the option of choosing not to be connected to an electrical power source.
Of course, applicable permit fees are still required, making the new code of minor consequence to property owners whose destroyed homes weren’t up to code in the first place.
After talking to McLane, Salisbury takes me further up Concow Road. We pass more dirt roads—Ishi Trail, Cirby Court, Green Forest Lane. Down each country back road, as soon as the main road is out of sight, new catastrophes reveal themselves. It’s a testament to a reality of fighting fire in wilderness areas: the more difficult the approach—especially when there’s only one escape route—the more difficult it is for firefighters to protect property.
Salisbury’s cabin was destroyed as well. All that’s left are remnants of a stone wall and some sheets of aluminum siding. She hadn’t been living in Concow for awhile when the fires came through. Now retired, the former drama teacher lives in Paradise, drawing income from a Chico rental. She has no plans for her Concow property at this point, other than clearing out burned trees and milling and stockpiling some lumber.
“These mountains used to be places of great mystery,” she says, surveying a transformed panorama that will take generations to regenerate. “It’s not just the house—the whole basin is our home.”
Of the 138 destroyed residences about which the Concow Phoenix Project has been able to collect information, only one owner has rebuilt, another two or three have begun construction, five have erected manufactured homes and 13 have opted to move out of the area. That leaves at least 117 families living in temporary housing of some sort—rentals, trailers, campgrounds or with family or friends.
During last summer’s wildfires, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger secured a presidential emergency declaration, bringing much-needed federal resources to aid firefighting efforts. Then, in the aftermath of the fires, he requested the fire zones be declared major federal disaster areas to qualify for funding to help with reconstruction. Based on findings of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, however, President George W. Bush denied the request.
FEMA doesn’t release details of denied requests, but the agency pointed out the determination is based on a state’s ability to provide resources and that the agency is there to assist with unmet needs. Given California’s empty coffers and the obvious unmet needs of Concow’s residents, it’s hard to understand how both the request and two appeals were denied.
As a concession, the Small Business Administration made available low-interest, disaster-assistance loans for fire victims in the months after the fires. So far, 15 Concow applications have been approved, for a total of $1.6 million in loans.
With little financial assistance available, especially for low-income residents with no insurance benefits and no credit to secure SBA loans, Concow residents have had to rely heavily on themselves and the Concow Phoenix Project and the Yankee Hill Fire Safe Council to fill the gaps in recovery assistance.
It should be noted that in the immediate aftermath of the fires, the county, community volunteers, local businesses and especially Southern Baptist Church disaster relief volunteers led by Magalia Pines Baptist Church pastor Doug Crowder were crucial in helping people clean up and attempt to get their lives in order.
The Concow Phoenix Project, a grassroots group of energetic residents, hit the ground running with a mission “to facilitate and support sustainability, rebuilding, community and fundraising” and has been a consistent force in the community since.
In addition to drumming up support for the Adopt-a-Shed project and the Title 25 building code, the group created a tool-sharing bank (located at the Lake Concow Campground, a hub of the community’s recovery activity), established a recovery donation fund, and set up a Web site (http://concowphoenix.org) with an exhaustive list of information and resources for everything from land restoration to permanent housing to fire bulletin links.
For the Yankee Hill Fire Safe Council, the Camp Fire marked a shift in its activities. Previously, the council was involved primarily in prevention and education, but as post-fire realities developed the group and its energetic leader, Brenda Rightmyer, saw a gap in addressing basic human needs, as well as restoration and reforestation. Since they were already established in the community, Rightmyer says, “that allowed us to take immediate action.”
The group set up a fire-recovery information center, organized regular community meetings, facilitated a California Department of Corrections chipping program, and set up the Concow Fire Recovery Fund. Money from the fund was used to install a mobile three-shower bathroom for fire refugees and to provide gas and propane vouchers for residents.
To date, the more than $30,000 raised has also been used for counseling services for residents, and plans for a youth-mentoring program are under way.
“Doing this stuff helps keep me moving forward,” Rightmyer says while tending the YHFSC booth at the recent Wild Mountain Faire at the Lake Concow Campground. The 15-year Yankee Hill resident is handing free Western redbud saplings (donated by PG&E) and talking about the big item on the council’s agenda.
“My wish is that we can find a sponsor or donor so we can start building Concow Cabins,” Rightmyer says. Modeled after the Katrina Cabins constructed for displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina, the cabins would provide modest, 500- to 900-foot, fire-safe and code-compliant homes for those who can’t afford to rebuild. To build 20 Concow Cabins, YHFSC is going to have to raise $1 million.
Less than a mile up Concow Road from Yellow Wood, George and Meralee Cox have been trying to start over. Each day of work over the past year brought new challenges.
“There certainly were days where I felt like I just wanted to walk away,” says Meralee. “Every time we turn around, there’s something in our way.”
Sometimes the problems are huge, like when they had to sell approximately $30,000 worth of damaged trees to loggers for $1,700 because they weren’t able to cut and truck them to the mill themselves.
Most of the time, however, the problems are more subtle, though no less challenging. Today, the neighbor across the way is doing some burning, and the air is getting smoky. Even inside the new modular home the Coxes erected in May, a faint campfire smell sneaks in, and Maralee confesses that smoke—in addition to sirens and helicopters—is an emotional trigger for her. “As fire season got closer, we all got a little stressed,” she says.
Meralee has been attending the regular group-counseling sessions funded by the YHFSC since last fall.
“We were all a pretty big mess in November,” she says about that time right after the county’s Oct. 20 deadline for cleanup had passed, and the last of the huge donated bins was trucked away.
She guesses that, at its peak, when the group was meeting weekly, there were 15 or so participants. Now, a core of six or seven continues to come together every other week.
“It’s our hope that as we learn about this recovery process,” Meralee says, “we’ll be able to help [others].”
Of course, the recovery process manifests in different ways for each person. George, a Vietnam War veteran, doesn’t say much about the after-effects of the devastation, admitting that, like his painful wartime memories, he’s just keeping his feelings inside.
The Coxes are relative newcomers to Concow. George, a recently out-of-work cabinet maker, moved here in 1998, and soon after tracked down Meralee—his former high school sweetheart—in Texas, moved her out to California and married her in 2002.
The Cox property is up a driveway off the main Concow Road, just a half-mile from a fire station and one of the firefighter staging areas, and yet the couple still lost everything. They had insurance, but like many who live in secluded fire-prone areas with no fire hydrants, they were underinsured.
The Coxes are among the handful approved for one of the low-interest SBA loans. They were able to augment their insurance reimbursement (what was left after paying off the mortgage on the burned home) sufficiently to be able to put in the modular home, do some landscape rejuvenation and, in the near future, replace George’s shop.
While the Coxes are relieved to be out of the trailer they had been living in for nine-plus months, they don’t yet feel like they’re at home.
“It’s sort of difficult to put your own personal stuff back in your home,” Meralee says, explaining how it’s hard to add the traditional touches—something as simple as curtains—that make a place a home. “You don’t want to put too much emotional feeling into it.”
A week before the Wild Mountain Faire, a benefit for the Concow Phoenix Project and the YHFSC, Salisbury steers the station wagon into the parking lot at the Lake Concow Campground. Volunteers are putting the finishing touches on some colorful, oversized insect decorations for the three-day live-music and camping fest to take place at the campground.
When the group realizes that we’re on the “Devastation Tour,” they gradually draw around and start telling their fire stories. Sue Evans, a boisterous, raspy-voiced blonde, didn’t lose her home, but she recalls stepping out of the car and into the hot ash with a friend of hers, and fighting off aggressive pine beetles as they surveyed her friend’s destroyed home.
Meralee Cox is there, and so is Troy Dewey, one of the campground’s managers. He and campground co-manager Anthony “Tony” Salzarulo (a 49-year Concow resident and “unofficial mayor of Concow”) lost two homes—the mobile they were living in down Ishi Trail, and the dismantled pieces of the house they’d recently moved to reassemble on their current property.
I return later in the week to sit in with Salzarulo and Dewey, both of whom were at the service of the community during the evacuations, serving meals and providing a safe place to stay. Soon, the rest of the volunteer crew joins us.
While every person has a different story, there’s one thread that comes up in each one: As much as there is plenty to worry about in this still-early point in the recovery process, frustrations surrounding the circumstances leading up to and during the July 8 evacuations are still at the forefront of everyone’s minds.
The two main issues are: the fact that, with typically strong down-canyon winds forecasted for 3 a.m. on July 8, there was backfiring happening between Concow and its northeastern neighbor Pulga on the night of July 7; and that, with wind and backfires on the horizon, residents weren’t given more time to evacuate.
Unfortunately, the strong winds (gusts of 20-40 mph throughout the morning) came earlier than expected, causing spotting across the backfire line and sending it and the Camp Fire behind it roaring uncontrollably toward Concow in the early morning hours. A zero-hour evacuation ensued, forcing residents, many of whom had started unpacking from a previous evacuation in light of assurances that the fires were coming under control, to flee their homes again.
Later, I talk with CAL FIRE spokesman Scott McClain to get a response. “Winds weren’t acting up for a long period of time,” says McClain, adding that backfire or not, “Camp Fire was coming down.
“You have the stigma of the backfire,” he says, acknowledging the community’s concern. “We do not take this lightly.”
Stigma or not, there are many who disagree with the tactic.
“I don’t think it was a good idea,” says Rightmyer, voicing the sentiment of many Concow residents. And, if the backfiring hadn’t occurred, “[the evacuees] probably would have had a little more time.”
A couple days later, on the second day of the Wild Mountain Faire, Salzarulo, Dewey and the rest of the volunteers stay very busy keeping the fest’s engine running. Those locals in attendance don’t seem to have devastation on their minds. In fact, for one weekend at least, their burdens are being lifted by several hours of food, drink and music under the green canopy of this preserved campground.
Salzarulo seems genuinely at peace. “Me and Troy are the luckiest people in Concow,” he says. “I’m done with the fire—I’m over it.”
When it’s suggested that a possible title for this story might be the Phoenix Project’s own slogan, “Concow Rising,” the unofficial mayor suggests instead, “‘Concow Rising!’ With an exclamation point.”After the fire:
Concow Phoenix Project
Fire survivor resources and info, plus recovery-needs survey (beginning August 10).
Phoenix Fire Story Project
Recording project of stories from the 2008 Lightning Complex Fires
Contact Rebecca at (530) 588-6175 to share.
Yankee Hill Fire Safe Council
Fire prevention, evacuation plans, chipper program, resident assistance <pbr(530) 877-0984 <br>www.buttefiresafe.org/yhfsc.php
You can help:
Donate money to the recovery effort at Concow Phoenix and YHFSC sites.