Written by Jack Healy
In the sprawling destruction of California’s wildfires, one photo became an instant icon for 2020’s miseries: On a hillside roaring with flames stood a sign that asked visitors to a senior center to wear masks, wash their hands and be safe. “Come Join Us,” it beckoned creepily.
The virus. Lost jobs. A world aflame.
Yep, said Judi Vollmer, whose trailer home down the road from the sign burned down last week, just days after she learned that her 92-year-old father had tested positive for the coronavirus — that pretty much sums up life right now.
Vollmer, 65, was succinct: “2020 can go to hell. This has been the worst year of my life.”
Somehow, that welcome sign outside the Lake Berryessa senior center was still standing on Tuesday as residents trickled back through police barricades and road closures to check out what little had survived.
Three people were killed — one of them a 71-year-old man in a wheelchair — when flames swarmed their mountainside property. Family members said they had tried to escape, but as a last resort took refuge in a homemade “burn shelter.” Relatives identified the victims as Mary Hintemeyer, 70, her boyfriend, Leo McDermott, 71, and McDermott’s 41-year-old son, Tom.
Much of the lakefront community of retirees and young families who commute to landscaping, winery and service jobs in wealthier corners of Napa County had been reduced to a thicket of tangled steel and ash.
Now, as people in this community of 1,700 salvaged chipped tea saucers and wooden lanterns from the char of about 100 destroyed homes, their worries were a microcosm of the question haunting so many people during this season of pandemic and strife: Would they ever get their old lives back?
“We’ve lost so many people who won’t be back,” said Jerry Rehmke, 80, who runs the country store with his wife, Marcia Ritz, 77. Her trailer home, with all of the drawings and paintings she had made, burned in the Spanish Flat Villa mobile home park, along with Vollmer’s trailer and about 50 others.
“Everything,” Ritz said. “It’s down to the ground.”
The constellation of wildfires staining California’s skies and stinging people’s lungs across the West have now killed seven and destroyed at least 1,690 homes and other buildings, officials said. It is still early in a wildfire season expected to rage through the fall. So as 15,000 firefighters pushed to gain control of the blazes around the state, thousands of families who evacuated are now streaming back and wondering whether they will have to flee again.
On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the accounting of death and damage could rise as people return home. “We’ve never seen fire of this scale in this part of the state,” he said. “It demonstrates the reality — not just the point of view — of climate change and its impact in this state.”
Ritz moved to Lake Berryessa 13 years ago and took over running the country store (which survived, as did some marinas and campgrounds). Their store actually boomed during the pandemic as stir-crazy boaters and anglers flooded the area and snapped up orders of chicken sandwiches and meatloaf. That is over now, and faced with years of rebuilding and a bleak economic future, Ritz said she was ready to quit altogether.
“Our customers have gone,” Ritz said Tuesday morning, a few minutes after she woke up from another night sleeping outside on an air mattress beside the country store. “By the end of the year I’ll be out. This is it.”
Her husband piped up: “We should take down the sign that says ‘Only Five People in the Store.’ There may not be five people up here.”
It was never simple living along Lake Berryessa, a reservoir stocked with trout and catfish that is also famous for a drain that creates a vortex-like hole during wet years. Work is scarce, and cities and groceries are a 40-minute drive along vertiginous mountain roads. The roads can glaze with ice in the winter, and on 90-degree summer days, pints of ice cream melt into soup before you can get them home.
People said they moved from bigger cities because they liked the rural quiet and seeing mountain lions out their windows. On Tuesday morning, a singed fox limped through the mobile home park, paying no heed to the residents and power crews in the street.
Some people had been drawn to the lake by California’s affordable-housing crisis, pushed out of the rest of Napa. They said this was one of the last corners of affordable housing for people earning minimum wage or living off Social Security in a county where the average home costs more than $700,000.
Fire had always been a threat, but evacuations and smoke have gotten even more common as climate change compounds the risk of fires in what is known as the wildland-urban interface. Hillsides overgrown with dry fuel are broiling, and the greenery that people say they cherish about life here has gone as brown as scorched crust.
For the past four years, people around the lake said they watched fires march toward their homes, only to be beaten back. The local Lions Club would donate money to fire victims. Local officials installed a cache of emergency beds and supplies and a big new generator at the senior center to be used as a fallback spot, residents said.
“We know what devastation it does,” Pam Stadnyk, whose trailer home burned, including the wood deck she had just put in, said as she walked through the area Tuesday for the first time since the fires. “We’ve been living with it. You just get to a point where you —” and she trailed off.
Months of the pandemic already had worn on the mobile home park’s working-class residents. Some lost work at Napa’s wineries and restaurants.
Edward Morrison, 57, had lost overtime work doing delivery runs to businesses that closed as the pandemic dragged on. One of his sons had been living near Paradise last year when a wildfire gutted the town and killed more than 50 people. Now, his trailer was rubble and his cat was missing. He called a dispatcher.
“Your address?” she asked Morrison.
“Well my address burned down,” he said.
Vollmer, who had lived at the lake for 18 years, kept working throughout the pandemic. Her $13-an-hour job at the country store was considered essential work, and though she had asthma and customers sometimes refused to wear masks, she kept going and did not get sick.
She had stayed away from her 92-year-old father’s nursing home since February until a couple of weeks ago, when Vollmer said she got a call telling her that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Vollmer said that he had Alzheimer’s disease and sometimes did not know if she was his daughter or wife, but that he seemed fine when she visited him through his window recently.
“I don’t know if it could get any more stressful than this,” she said.
The fire, like the pandemic, has hit California’s poorest residents hardest. Homeowners able to keep up with the complications and rising costs of insuring property in a fire zone had a safety net. But Vollmer said her carrier dropped her after a wildfire a few years ago. The trailer was her life’s investment and her retirement plan, and it burned alongside the $3,000 in cash she had tucked away inside.
The Red Cross is putting her up in a hotel near the airport in Napa along with three of her five cats — the ones she was able to rescue. She received a paper bag stuffed with donated clothes, but said she did not know where to go at the end of the week when her hotel stay was up.
She said she loved the community. When her husband died eight years ago, people took up a collection to pay for his cremation. She said she did not know how to start over at 65.
“We’re survivors from up there,” she said. “We dodged the bullet so many times. We always were OK.”