Sue Tavalero calls them “the things we don’t talk about.”
Her daughter’s wedding dress. The china that belonged to her grandmother. The oak desk her son built in high school that won him a student of the year prize for his woodworking skills.
“We just say, ‘Well, it probably burned pretty good,’” Tavalero said this week as she stood on what remains of Woodridge Court, a cul de sac that was lined with 15 homes until Sept. 15, when the Boles fire ripped across School House Hill and laid waste to much of this rustic Siskiyou County town 230 miles north of Sacramento.
More than 150 homes – a third of the town’s residences – were incinerated, as were the library, the food bank, two churches and a community services organization housed in a 100-year-old building near where Tavalero’s home once stood.
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Today, most of the burned places in Weed are still waiting to be rebuilt. Woodridge Court consists of empty lots, a handful of mailboxes and a maple tree that once shaded Tavalero’s front lawn.
Most of the street is a moonscape of bare dirt, burned tree stumps and the occasional dandelion or tulip poking through – reminders of the long-abandoned gardens and lawns that stood here in the shadow of Mount Shasta.
The Boles fire was the most destructive blaze in the state during last year’s fire season, burning more property than any of the other massive infernos that kept firefighters working the length of California well into what was once considered the rainy season.
No one died in the blaze, and a fierce aerial attack halted the fire’s progress through town within hours, allowing firefighters to begin mopping up hotspots the very next day.
But the fire and its aftermath serve as a reminder of what the state faces again as it enters the fourth year of a drought that has left pastures, forests and hillsides tinder dry.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says it recorded about 1,000 more blazes last year than in an average fire season. And despite some rain in recent months, the agency is bracing for more of the same this year. These days, it seems, fires burn all year.
“We took the unusual move to hold onto staffing through the winter months, when we staffed over 70 fire engines that would have been unstaffed through October and November,” Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
Since the start of 2015 through mid-April, the agency responded to 838 fires that burned 3,534 acres, compared with 862 fires that torched 2,417 acres during the same period last year.
The number of fires so far this year is about 40 percent higher than what Cal Fire would normally see, and firefighters are bracing for a summer of “megafires” similar to last year’s 98,000-acre King fire near Pollock Pines or the 257,000-acre Rim fire that burned near Yosemite National Park in 2013.
“Fires that would typically have been stopped in a much smaller size last year, because of the dry conditions, were able to burn at a much faster rate,” Berlant said. “That’s similar to what we’ve already seen this year.”
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Like last year, fires already are igniting in areas that in the past would still be sitting under a layer of snow. And, like last year, officials are seeing fires burn faster and hotter as they consume brush and trees that have gone for years without typical amounts of rainfall.
Winds whipped flames
That was the essence of the Boles fire, a wind-whipped, rapid blaze that erupted in a grassy area, roared up one hill and down another and left stunned residents fleeing through winding residential streets with only moments to grab their children, pets and a few belongings. The blaze, which authorities believe was set by a man near an apartment complex where he once lived, was smaller than many of last year’s wildfires, torching a little more than 500 acres. But it left widespread damage.
The fire was fanned by gusting winds, a hallmark of life in Weed. The town’s website boasts that the town was named for Abner Weed, who bought the local lumber mill and 280 acres for $400 in 1897 after he “discovered that the area’s strong winds were helpful in drying lumber.”
The mill still sits in the center of town and employs about 110 people. Although the blaze caused some damage to a workshop on the property, the mill itself was spared.
Some other local institutions went up in flames. Longtime town librarian Shelley Green was at work when she saw the fire coming and decided to get out in her car. “When I left, I said, ‘It’s going to Oregon,’” she said this week. “There’s no way they’ll be able to stop this fire because of the winds.”
The library and its 8,300 books were destroyed along with the community center and the Great Northern Services building, a 35-year-old nonprofit resource agency that is now helping residents recover.
The library reopened less than two weeks ago, taking over space downtown in a former bank and housing some of its new books – many of which poured in from donors nationwide – in the old bank vault.
Great Northern Services moved its operations into new office space within four days of the fire and began collecting donations and offering services to help displaced residents, said Audra Gibson, the agency’s marketing and special projects manager who also fled the flames that day.
Today, much of the planning and efforts to rebuild the damaged parts of town are being overseen by the Weed Long-Term Recovery Group, which has helped arrange for everything from free beds for fire victims to recommending disbursements of donated funds for expenses such as helping the city rebuild damaged infrastructure.
Donations of clothing and other materials eventually filled five tractor-trailers, and a class was created at College of the Siskiyous for locals to learn construction skills from area contractors who may end up hiring them for the rebuilding effort.
“It’s hands-on, and ideally will lead to some jobs,” Gibson said. “There’s always been a push and a pride to shop local.”
A smaller population
So far, officials working on the rebuilding effort said about 80 of the 150 displaced families plan to rebuild and stay in Weed.
Others were renters or absentee homeowners who have decided not to return to the community, which sits along Interstate 5 north of the city of Mount Shasta and serves passing tourists, including many who stop to purchase an “I Love Weed” T-shirt or bumper sticker at the souvenir shop that sits at the entrance to town, not far from where the blaze began.
Only about a dozen homes are in the process of being rebuilt, although officials say they expect the pace to pick up now that many of the permitting and insurance hurdles have been overcome.
“Some of these homes that burnt down I built,” construction company owner Jerry Keen said Tuesday as he supervised the rebuilding of a home in the town’s Angel Valley neighborhood, near the cemetery.
Keen, 63, has run a construction company in the area for three decades. He said he typically employs about four people, but the rebuilding effort has boosted his business. About 100 people are working on his projects, including subcontractors, he said.
The rebuilding effort has another upside: New homes are being built to much more stringent codes, and are being put in place with emergency sprinkler systems built in.
People who have been forced into rentals or trailers waiting for their new homes to be ready are showing the strain, locals say. “I’m not kidding you, daily sometimes they’ll just break into tears recalling things,” Keen said.
Weed Mayor Bob Hall, 66, said it is still too early to say how the loss of residents who don’t return and schoolchildren who move away will affect the town coffers. He said the terror of last year’s fire remains at the forefront of every resident’s thoughts.
“Whenever there’s any kind of fire or the smell of smoke, everybody in town is pretty spooked,” Hall said. “You don’t take it for granted.”
Tavalero is reflective about the damage from the fire. “I’m religious, and I think things happen for a reason,” she said. “I don’t think God’s mad at us. I think it’s a test, I think your whole life on Earth is a test.”
Even after losing all of her family’s belongings, she remains upbeat and is looking forward to rebuilding in the same location on a larger lot.
Her goal is to be able to move in before her 25th wedding anniversary on Oct. 27 with her husband, Scott, a Cal Fire battalion chief who was not home when the fire erupted because he had left that morning to fight the King fire near Sacramento.
“It’s not like my house was the only house in town that burned down,” she said. “I’m in a boat with a lot of people.
“There’s lots of people patting each other on the back and saying, ‘Come on, we can do this.’”
Call The Bee’s Sam Stanton, (916) 321-1091.