Residents return to town ravaged by Northern California’s Valley fire: ‘It will never be the same’

The charred metal skeleton of a carport and vehicles at the Middletown Manor apartments in Middleton, Calif. Nearly all the 1,000 citizens of the town were forced to evacuate the Valley fire.

The charred metal skeleton of a carport and vehicles at the Middletown Manor apartments in Middleton, Calif. Nearly all the 1,000 citizens of the town were forced to evacuate the Valley fire.

(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Diane Aquiana Tulley moved to Anderson Springs 13 years ago after falling in love with it on a trip to a nearby lake.

The town, a cluster of small homes around a creek and hot springs carved into a hillside, was “physically remote, which made it peaceful,” Aquiana Tulley said.

“And so green. Green, green, green,” she added.

She and her husband spent most of her retirement savings to build a house. After he died a few years ago, she kept renovating, laying down floors and painting walls until the week the fire came.


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Now that the house and the greenery are gone, Aquiana Tulley is confronting a question that many who were displaced by the Valley fire in Northern California are struggling to answer: Should we rebuild?

The Valley fire burned more than 1,000 structures in Lake County and left three people dead, but few towns were as devastated as Anderson Springs, where Leonard Neft, one of the dead, was discovered on a nearby hiking trail. Barbara McWilliams, who died in the Valley fire, also was from Anderson Springs.

Fewer than 10 structures remain standing.

A YouTube video posted last week of a driver evacuating from the community shows walls of flame in every direction.

The blaze tore through the community of about 500 people with terrifying speed, residents say.

Signs of a rushed evacuation were everywhere Sunday. At the recreation center and swimming hole, a deflated pool lounger was slumped over a picnic table. Nearby was a parked white Toyota Tacoma, where goggles had been discarded in the front seat. A pair of towels were draped over a railing next to some flip-flops and a burst bag of groceries.

A community bulletin board featured a notice for a community meeting about wildfire danger, dated Sept. 19 — a week after the town was leveled by fire.

Anderson Springs, a former resort town famous for its mineral springs, became a permanent residential community in the 1930s, but some families go back several generations.

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It’s a place where people go to own a corner of nature, residents say — and the wildfire risk that comes with it. The town has been damaged by wildfires at least once before, according to a document published by the Anderson Springs Community Alliance, a conservation nonprofit.

Lia Findley Jennings moved to the area a few years ago because it seemed like a good place to raise a family, with clean air, tall trees and hot springs bubbling from the mountain.

But the fire risk never felt real. After they survived the Jerusalem and Rocky fires earlier this summer, Jennings said, “we thought that was it.”

Her home in Anderson Springs, which she had rented out for the last few years, was leveled by the fire, and something about leaving the evacuee center at the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga worries her. She’s not ready to think about rebuilding.

Aquiana Tulley wants to rebuild, but there’s a lot to consider.

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With the whole town gone, construction will be going on for years. The tall pines she loved so much are charred and different trees will be planted in their place. She has her original house plans on file with the county, decent fire insurance and a contractor she trusts. But she worries that Anderson Springs will suffer the fate of other communities erased by natural disaster — rebuilt, but forever altered.

“I don’t know. I don’t know if I can bear it emotionally,” Aquiana Tulley said. “It will never be the same. It’s going to be a different neighborhood.”

But her memories of the town and of the house that her late husband designed are too powerful for her to ignore. Some part of her wants to finish the renovation, she said.

“It can’t not exist. It’s too special. I cannot imagine Anderson Springs not rebuilding.”

For more news in California, follow @frankshyong.


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