Visiting a Community Burned Down


Scenes from the drive up the mountain

We drove out to Cobb Mountain on Saturday to work on the site of a house that burned down last month.

A dozen of us, total, from St. Mark Lutheran Church arrived at the home of a church member who was burned out.

I hadn’t been up to Lake County since the Valley Fire, and really, had never been to a scene quite like it before.

Middletown was pocked with burned out houses in between those that escaped unscathed. Driving out of town up the hill to Cobb, we saw hillsides scorched and trees reduced to nothing but blackened toothpicks.

It reminded me of past wildfire sites in Yellowstone National Park (Visited five years after the big fires of 1988, where as far as you could see were black dead trees) and 2000 Mesa Verde National Park (we elected not to claim our campsite the day after the park opened again. The park smelled like the interior of an ash tray).



“Welcome to Mordor,” my husband said.


The steep hillsides were covered with ashe. You had a sense if you stepped in, the whole hillside would puff up into a cloud.

Yet, after climbing Highway 175 for a time, we came to the little dell that is Cobb proper. That area didn’t burn–the pizzeria is open, the video store, fire station, Lion’s club, the golf course–all looked perfectly normal and green. The elementary school, too, was unscathed.

But higher we went, and hell descended.

All the trees burned, neighborhoods full of ash, soot, cement remains of what was a house. Fireplaces stood alone; scorched and buckled appliances were the only things rising out of the ground.

Everything else remained piles of burned out rubble, knee deep in many places.

Punctuated, though, by brand new telephone and electrical poles, fresh wires strung between and many running vehicles parked between the burned out hulks.

“Really, P,G & E and Caltrans have worked overtime, getting things working again,” explained one fire coordinator at the Middletown Lion’s Club. “They’be been heroes getting things put back together.”

We saw lots of trucks from tree removal companies, most pulling chipping machines behind. This would be a good year to buy wood chips if you need them in Northern California.

The fires burned through a month ago. This particular housing area was among the first to burn, only two miles from where the fire began. By the time our friends heard there was a fire (they were 45 miles away in Sonoma County at the time), their home was long burned to the ground.

burnedMy husband, a mechanical engineer with a specialty in metallurgy, examined some of the melted materials we found at the homesite. “The fires must have been between 1450 and 1600 degrees fahrenheit by the time they got to the house, based on the melted aluminum, but the steel that was unaffected (besides being blackened).”

On a street with 17 houses, everything was gone.

Nothing stood for as far as we could see.

Yet, as the homeowner said, “it was a miracle the fire came through on a Saturday. If that school down the road had been in session . . . ” our jaws dropped open just imagining it, “People would have died trying to get to their kids.”

We sifted for six hours. By the end of that time, destruction, ashe, burned out twists of metal, were the norm. It didn’t seem so grim anymore. Come back on Friday to read about the sifting.

I’ve put together a Pinterest board of my photos, which you can view here.


First visit to Cobb after Valley fire Click to Tweetburned

Valley fire remains? Welcome to Mordor. Click to Tweet

Ash so thick, puffing into a cloud. Click to Tweet



Leave a comment


  1. Michelle, thank you for the gentle, but real reminder of how devastating the Valley Fire was. What an experience that had to be, even so very emotional for all who drove up and viewed first hand and then helped sift through the ashes to find momentoes or something of value at your friends home.

    You are a dear friend,

  2. Wow. “Welcome to Mordor.”
    How absolutely surreal it must have been!

  3. I can’t imagine. When Jennifer was visiting at my house in 2015, after the conference, our neighbor’s home across the road had an explosion. We live so far out … it was so far gone by the time the fire department could arrive. I’ll never forget watching that with Jennifer. Broke my heart. It was dark … and we were afraid sparks would come across the road. But the family was at church when the explosion happened. Praise God for that. I can’t imagine that feeling of sifting through … feeling the pain of the loss, but rejoicing over the few recovered treasures. My heart is with you, Michelle. My prayers are daily for you all.

  1. Clearing After a Fire: Personal Thoughts | Michelle Ule, Author
  2. Clearing After a Fire: Personal Thoughts | Michelle Ule, Author

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