By Elizabeth Zach, RCAC staff writer
The road that weaves its way to John Hamner’s Middletown office is little more than a functional strip of asphalt these days.
But for a visitor driving along it to see Hamner, the burnt landscape bordering the road is a relentless reminder of the devastating fires that swarmed the area in September.
Hamner began his career as the general manager for the Hopland Public Utility District 20 years ago, where he secured a $3 million U.S. Department of Agriculture funding package to upgrade the utility’s aging water system. He went on to become a circuit rider for the California Rural Water Association, and ultimately a full-time rural development specialist for RCAC for 11 years, starting in 2002. Since 2013, he has worked as the general manager for the Callayomi County Water District (CCWD).
Middletown lost around 140 homes and businesses and according to Cal Fire 1,958 structures were destroyed including: 1,280 homes, 27 multi-family structures, 66 commercial properties, and 585 other minor structures.
As he surveys the charred land, Hamner also watches cleanup crews dressed in white protective suits and gas masks, hired by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They walk through burnt lots and beneath charred trees, as if in a doomsday film. The shrill moans of jackhammers and excavators pierce the still smoky afternoon air.
“We lost around 140 homes and businesses in Middletown itself,” says John, noting that according to Cal Fire 1,958 structures were destroyed including: 1,280 homes, 27 multi-family structures, 66 commercial properties, and 585 other minor structures.
In the fire’s aftermath, state officials ordered the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) to help with repairs and clean-up. The agency in turn sent assistance via the City of San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and East Bay Municipal Utility District.
A few weeks following the fierce firestorm—reportedly the worst in the area’s recorded history—that swept across acres of mountain forest and into this remote northern California town, Hamner talks about the losses. He is remarkably grateful for what could be salvaged: stacks of files contained now in plastic tubs but previously stored in a protective metal file cabinet.
“We only saved half of our files and accounting and customer back-up computer files, nothing else,” he says.
Walking outside the trailer, he surveys the landscape and recounts the fire and the winds that fueled desperate days.
“There were all sorts of rumors, and people posting things on social media, so it was hard to know what to believe,” he recalls. Then, pointing to a new concrete slab, he tells of a young colleague who had a car re-fitting workshop there, and how hesitant he was to abandon the motorcycles and tools when it became clear the fire was on the march to this city block.
“He lost thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment,” Hamner said. Perhaps what is worse, like many in this rural community, the workshop owner is filled with self-recrimination for what might have been done differently, better. Many homes, says Hamner, were either underinsured or not insured at all for fire damage.
For the water district, the fire brought as much devastation.
Walking around the front of the trailer where the water district office once stood, Hamner explains that the utility had a filtration system with two pressure vessels. Although it was a groundwater system, its proximity to Putah Creek could contaminate the well, therefore, filtration is required.
The water in a groundwater well is “filtered” by the layers of earth and is typically better water quality than surface water, because surface water is easier to pollute. If a well is “under the influence” of surface water it means that the surface water, of lesser quality, is influencing the well and may not be as safe to drink. If a well is influenced by surface water, the water should be treated the same as if it was surface water.
“The CCWD’s primary well is very close to Putah Creek,” Hamner explained. “The State Health Department has determined that the well is influenced by surface water and therefore the district must comply with the Surface Water Treatment Rule that requires filtration and disinfection.”
The filtration system’s eight-inch ductile iron piping and automatic controls for backwashing the filters were located inside the building prior to the fire. When the fire burned the building it severely damaged the piping, destroyed the filter controls and damaged the filters themselves. The City of San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which has a memorandum of understanding with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to assist rural water systems, sent an expert to install a temporary control system that allowed the well to operate and fill the storage tank automatically. Twice it sent a six-man crew to temporarily decommission the filtration system. A crane, four trucks and a welder fabricated piping and installed a new master meter.
“We are managing fine, I guess,” Hamner says. “Good days and bad days. Discussions with the insurance company, our insurance adjuster and FEMA have kept us quite busy.
“Based on what I’ve seen and heard, about 10 percent to 15 percent percent of the people who lost their homes and businesses have left the Middletown area,” he continued, “and they do not plan on returning.”
And yet, he adds, some residents have actually poured new foundations and walls will be going up soon.
Meanwhile, driving through Middletown, the fire’s legacy is visible still, and leaves one wondering about fate and luck. One building stands like new, untouched by the flames, next to an empty lot where the haunting image of a lone brick chimney still stands. Hamner describes pine cones that caught fire and exploded in 60 mph winds, sending shrapnel-like bits hurling through the air in multiple directions.
So it was with this fire, as the fickle and furious winds suddenly pivoted, in effect burning down one house and missing another, as if playing cruel favorites.
In terms of fate and luck, too, Janet Mondragon, Callayomi County Water District’s secretary, and her family were traveling outside Middletown when their home went up in flames. She and her son were driving home from Los Angeles, and her husband and 13-year-old daughter were in Fort Bragg for a Middletown Colts football game. It was Hamner who gave her the bad news.
Once it was safe for them to return to their lots, they made their way there, forewarned, but not exactly prepared.
“Everyone was getting texts and phone calls,” she recalls. “We felt like deer caught in headlights. When we finally got to our lot a couple of days later, we had a good cry.” She says not long before, she and her family took photos from their house of the so-called Rocky and Jerusalem fires, hardly thinking another fire would soon be upon them.
After surveying their burnt-down house, they went to Middletown’s Senior Center, but found mostly confusion and chaos.
“We were handed papers and there wasn’t much explanation of what we were supposed to do other than to answer the questions on them,” Mondragon said.
“The insurance companies were not always good with communicating,” he says.
Mondragon says suspicion and misinformation were common under the circumstances.
Some residents hired independent adjusters to deal with their insurance companies, says Mondragon, because word was that “they’re going to offer you the least amount, so negotiate hard.”
In her case, homeowner’s insurance covered a three-night stay at a Santa Rosa hotel and later allowed for Mondragon and her family to rent a condominium there, a 45-minute drive from Middletown. It’s not perfect, she says – “I have to get used to having neighbors above us, I have to get used to using a laundromat and having a landlord” – but it’s adequate, and there is new carpet and paint inside.
She is mostly resigned to the losses, though she can still recount in remarkable detail what those were. When she and her family returned to their home and searched through the ashes, only a few pieces of dishware and ceramics survived. Nothing else was left except appliance shells. Gone, too, were clothes, shoes, purses, scarves and $500 worth of jewelry, all a devastating loss for Mondragon who spent 19 years as an Avon saleswoman.
Just a few weeks prior, however, she had brought tubes of lip balm and hand lotion from her cosmetics inventory to the fire department, thinking they would help the firefighters.
“I never really made money at it,” she says with a laugh over her Avon business. “What I did make, was lots of friendships in the community, people who became like family.”
Hamner is equally optimistic.
“Others attend town hall meetings and tribal gatherings to get information on what to do and what not to do in order to rebuild as soon as possible,” he says. “The county is trying to soften their restrictions on RVs to allow folks to live on their property while rebuilding, and the requirements for modular homes will also be eased. People are waiting for their insurance companies to settle – and so are we! – so they can make decisions and move on.”