Lake County Stories

Forest fires are increasing as a result of climate change. As the years go by, they are affecting larger areas and becoming severe in some places. In Northern California, hundreds of thousands have been affected by raging wildfires. In some cases, the resulting losses are substantial with many deaths and widespread damage to property. Fires have a significant impact on the environment, livelihood and can weaken a community. Here are personal accounts of harrowing experiences and reflections in Lake County.

I’ve come close to losing my little place near the river more times than I care to remember and have evacuated twice due to fires. The Ranch fire started just down the highway from where I live – I was terrified I would lose everything.

Being retired and on a limited income, every new expense is a major challenge. I can survive in a shelter for short periods but the expense of replacing food or storing important possessions is a burden. The gift card I received several weeks after returning home literally enabled me to get through the month.

As difficult as it is has been for me, I feel I am among the more fortunate. At least my home is still standing. But I see the magnitude of losses others have faced and it is heartbreaking.

– A. Newport

When we left Bachelor Valley to find a place of safety from the fire, Cleo, my good cat, and I stopped on Highway 20, to look at the approaching monster. I saw, a mile away, the orange flames and the thick gray smoke of the Ranch Fire reach to the sky and creep ever closer to my home. At that moment I accepted that when I came back, the home that Jeannette and I built fifty years ago, would be dust and ashes.

The fires that chewed up our great Lake County, left many of our neighbors without a home. I was one of the lucky ones. The flames burned to the edge of the asphalt road in front of my farm.

Thanks to our fire fighters my home was spared. During the long eight days I stayed with my daughter, the Animal Control folks came by and kept my animals fed and watered. My outdoor cats and my other animal neighbors, a mamaraccoon and her two little ones, a rat-tailed possum and a baby skunk; all looked healthy when I returned.

Many of our neighbors, less fortunate than Cleo and I, still need our help. The 1 TEAM 1 DREAM folks are working hard to speed our recovery, to help the fire victims and make Lake County, once more, all that we can be. They need your help. Your donation, no matter how small, is appreciated. As we have always done, we people of this great County will work together for that great recovery; 1 TEAM and 1 DREAM.

– Gene Paleno

In life, we all have key moments that change everything forever. For me, one of the most important key moments was May 30, 1997 at 6:00pm, that was when I first laid eyes on my future wife. That day began a lifelong journey together.

Another key moment for me was July 27, 2017 at 2:30pm. This day was different than most. First, because my wife was out of town. I had sent her to Rome Georgia, her hometown, to visit friends and attend her high school reunion. I was unable to go because I was extremely busy with work that week. Another reason I stayed behind was to take care of our pets – we have four cats and two dogs (our “fur family”).

So, what made this day stand out so much in my mind? Since my wife was out of town I was not sleeping as soundly as I normally would – I was more tired than usual. At 2:30pm, I said to myself “You have the house to yourself; take a nap.” I did and once I awoke nothing would ever be the same again…

I was sleeping soundly when I heard a sound like sticks breaking. I ignored it at first. You know that feeling where you just hope whatever is making noise will stop so you can get back to dreamland? Well, that is how I felt so I drifted back off to sleep. Then the sound got louder. I glanced at the clock – it was 4:39pm, so I said to myself: “What the is the neighbor doing? That sound is not stopping.” I went to investigate the noise. I was barefoot, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and still half asleep. I opened the front door, and dreamland immediately became a real-life nightmare. OUR HOME WAS ON FIRE!!!!

I quickly surveyed the situation – our neighbor’s house was fully engulfed in flames, our wooden fence was on fire, my truck was on fire, our garage was on fire, the back door exit was already blocked, and the flames were 6 feet from the front door. I had seconds to get out – no time to hunt for my shoes, no time to grab anything, except I picked up our dog Angel in my arms. I tried to get our other dog Zeus to come, but he was scared and would not come. I couldn’t wait – if I waited I would die. So, I ran through the flames barefoot with Angel in my arms. Once I ran to the bottom of our very long driveway, I saw the firefighters fighting the fire at our neighbor’s house. At that point, they didn’t realize our house was also on fire. I told them what was going on and that I needed help. Two firefighters ran in, one came out with Zeus wrapped in a blanket – he was unharmed. We laid the blanket out across the street as I watched in horror, as everything we owned was burning rapidly. One by one, the firefighters saved all four of our cats. They brought them down the hill, handed them to me, went back up and saved another.

The shock was hitting me. The relief that each of our animals were saved kept me focused. However, even though we were all out safely, I had a huge issue. I am holding in my arms four scared cats, trying to hold onto two dogs, and not lose anyone any of them as chaos ensued around us. If any of our animals tried to run away, I would not be able to chase them because my feet were burned. I had no shoes, and nothing to keep our two dogs and 4 cats contained. Helicopters were flying above, fire engines were everywhere, people were walking, neighborhood dogs were howling, and somehow I had to not let them go, no matter how many times I got scratched or how much pain I was in. I laid there for over two hours, my arms wrapped around them, keeping them calm, keeping them safe, reassuring them as firefighters fought this blaze.

Our street was very narrow – no cars could get in past the firetrucks to pick me up. So, I was stranded. A neighbor who I never met before asked if he could help. He brought two leashes for our dogs and a pair of flip flops. As we talked, we found a garbage can to use as a temporary kennel for our four cats. I asked the fire fighters to cut air holes in the top. Finally, my cramped arms could rest. Animal Control took our cats and assured me they would be safe. They offered to take our dogs as well, but I chose to keep them with me. I walked down the street – all I had left was the shirt on my back, my shorts and those flip flops my neighbor gave me, despite that I was the luckiest man alive. I survived, and thanks to the incredible firefighters who risk their lives not only for us humans, but also run into burning buildings for animals too – there was no loss of life. As the days went on, the outpouring of support and love from so many members of our community was overwhelming. Oddly enough, I don’t look back at that day in horror or regret. I learned so much about myself and the people around me. I learned that “No matter how much it hurts, don’t let go, hang on, you can handle this.” As far as the people around me, Lake County is a special place. It is unique – we look out for each other, we care. I felt the love that night and the love has only grown. When someone is down, we pick each other up, no one is left out in the cold. So many fires have come our way. They could have broken our spirit as a community but it they didn’t. I thank the firefighters for all they did for me that day. I thank my community for reaching out to me in my hour of need. I thank God that I’m alive. As I stated earlier, in life we all have key moments on that day. I lost my home, but I saw human nature at its best. Bravery, kindness, perseverance – those are the qualities that make our community the wonderful place it is. I’m very proud to be a part of it.

– A. Schmitt