LAKEPORT — The air is so fresh here — long ranked the cleanest in the nation — that residents of Lake County like to boast that they don’t need to smog test their cars.
But six wildfires so far this summer have ravaged this rural county north of Napa, and the smoky haze has settled into the souls of its 63,000 residents. Since last weekend, the drought-fueled Valley Fire alone has destroyed nearly 600 homes and killed three people. The blaze still isn’t contained and fire season isn’t over. It’s tough on a county that, unlike its wealthier Wine Country neighbors to the south, is as poor as it is pretty.
“You get the feeling of ‘what’s next and why?’ ” said the Rev. Randy Brehms of Lakeport Seventh-day Adventist Church, which has become one of several tent cities for evacuees. “It’s overwhelming.”
In many ways, locals are content to live one valley over from the center of California’s most famous wine region. You can buy a cheaper house or a farm in Lake County and still enjoy the bucolic, oak-studded views. You can raise chickens in town and ride horses down Main Street.
Unlike Napa to the south, luxury hotels never found their way here. The Super 8 and Best Western are the only chain motels in the county. But to the lament of locals, the once-proud Konocti Harbor music venue in Kelseyville, founded by the president of a plumbers union in 1959 to offer affordable vacation rentals for union members, closed six years ago.
Until the fire destroyed it, you could dip naked at Harbin Hot Springs Retreat. Characters are embraced here. And when the Valley Fire hurtled down the center of Middletown and through subdivisions on Cobb Mountain and in Hidden Valley, neighbors rescued neighbors.
Many who grew up in the Bay Area remember spending summers in funky lakeside resorts just north of the fire zone at Clear Lake (which isn’t so clear these days). But key indicators of health and wealth show Lake County often falling in the bottom five among California’s 58 counties.
Besides the county government based in Lakeport, Walmart and Kmart are the top employers. Senior citizens here are among the poorest in the state. One of every four residents smokes, causing a ripple effect of chronic heart and lung conditions. One in five residents is considered obese. Lake County has one of the highest rates of suicide in the state. Drug abuse is rampant.
That’s part of the reason it will be so tough to recover.
But they’re trying.
“Most of the time, when people talk about our dire circumstances, that doesn’t land well with the people who live here. People don’t understand there’s a strong community effort to try to work together,” said Susan Jen, part of the leadership team for Wellville, a nonprofit that chose Lake County as one of five communities across the country to improve residents’ health and the economy.
“We’ll have to address the real needs that are obviously in front of us, but on the other side, there is the true spirit of looking at not only rebuilding what was, but making something better.”
Churches and schools and fairgrounds are running well-stocked evacuation centers. Ranchers are loading their trucks and trailers with hay and feed to deliver to livestock left alone, while many residents remained banned from returning home. A bridal shop donated a dress to a bride who lost everything.
The “Hardester boys,” as they’re known in town — brothers who run Hardester’s Market and Hardware stores in Middletown and Cobb — are showing up at the evacuation centers to check on their customers and deliver paychecks to employees who haven’t been able to get to work in a week.
And as much as Facebook has been a fire forum for residents, it is a local community radio station — KPFZ — in the old Farmers Savings Bank building on Main Street in Lakeport, that people are turning to for information. The 300-watt station at 88.1 FM, staffed by volunteers, suspended its regular programming — from “Karma Cola” to “Senior Moments” — to connect those with needs to those who can fill them.
“Hi, this is Rick from Seventh-day Adventist on Park Avenue,” said the caller from one of the evacuation centers in Lakeport last week. “We could use kitchen workers — for the last four days, they’ve been working their tails off. The other thing that came up was luncheon meats, turkey or chicken — and belts. We have many pants but few belts. Is it OK that I ask?”
“That’s why we’re here,” said Andy Weiss, who on a normal day hosts “Pagan World Views” but was fiddling with the sound board one morning last week to answer the on-air call-in line instead.
As big as the county is — bordered by Napa County to the south and Mendocino County to the north; at 1,329 square miles, larger than Rhode Island — people seem to know each other far and wide.
“You can’t go anywhere in this county and not meet somebody you know,” said Horace Mendoza, 76, who moved from Alameda to Lakeport when he retired. He spends most mornings and evenings catching up with friends at Renee’s Cafe in downtown Lakeport, often talking about the lake’s premier bass fishing. “We have The Grange and the Lions Club and they visit each other. It’s just a big family, really.”
The evacuees are counting on that closeness now more than ever.
Anthony Bracisco, 26, lost not only his own home but also his mother’s up on Cobb Mountain, where the fire first hit last Saturday. The only thing that survived — thanks to a small group of firefighters — is his garage, filled with the work tools that belonged to his father, who died four years ago.
“Someone tried to break in last night, so I’m going to stay here and protect what little we have left,” said Bracisco, a county correctional officer who helped fight the fire and direct traffic during the blaze. “I have 30 days of provisions.”
The county has suffered greatly, he said, with the fires this summer and its pervasive social problems. Since July 29, six fires have torched more than 169,000 acres in Lake and its neighboring counties. The 69,438-acre Rocky Fire destroyed 43 homes.
It all makes it hard to stay positive, Bracisco said.
“The only thing next for Lake County is for us to stay together and rebuild,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of terrible things this year, but we will get through this.”
And someday soon, everyone hopes, the smoke will clear.
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409. Follow her at twitter.com/juliasulek.