October 13, 2015 by Joe Kukura

The magnitude of losses, damage and devastation from September’s Valley Fire in northern California is saddening and enormous. One of the worst fires in California history, the Valley Fire was most destructive in the wine country region of Lake County, about 100 miles north of San Francisco.

Large stretches of entire communities were destroyed in towns like Middletown, Cobb and Hidden Valley Lake. The fires have been contained and the thousands of residents who had been displaced are returning to what remains of their homes. But even with some victims able to return home, the humanitarian needs of the Lake County Valley Fire victims remain very much significant.

More than 1,300 Lake County residents have had their homes destroyed. A full 120 square miles of the county were burned away by the fire, with homes, businesses, farms and entire city blocks all perishing. The fire claimed four lives, and the more than 19,000 people who were evacuated from their homes still remain in various emergency centers, shelters and tent cities. The fire has been the worst disaster in Lake County history, with hundreds of millions of dollars in losses and damages.

The Lake County region has a long and difficult road back to normal. Lake County’s primary industry is agriculture, and the Valley Fire has destroyed more than just the crops. Grazing land is charred beyond use, miles of hand-built fences have been destroyed and, most significantly, thousands of livestock and pets were lost and are still unaccounted for. The Valley Fire spread with such immediacy that many evacuees did not have time to collect their animals. But the wineries and vineyards, the largest component of Lake County’s agriculture, were relatively fortunate.

“Most of the vineyards in the area survived,” said Terry Dereniuk, executive director of the Lake County Winery Association. “One small-production winery facility, Shed Horn Cellars, was destroyed in the fire. Owners Adawn and Michael Wood lost both their home and the winery facility, but their tasting room located in Middletown and inventory were safe. Several winery employees lost their homes in the fire.”

“Almost all wineries in Lake County are open for business, crushing and processing the grapes that are coming in,” Dereniuk said. “Tasting rooms that have not yet reopened but will be doing so soon.” Additionally, assessments are coming in that the grapes have not been affected by smoke taint.

If your first reaction is to wonder how you can help the fire’s victims, there are a number of ways that you can contribute, and a variety of humanitarian and charitable organizations are directing their efforts to help these victims.

The website LoveLakeCounty.org is serving as a charitable clearinghouse with directories of donation links to relief funds, volunteer opportunities, lists of donation centers and a calendar of upcoming fundraising events. The Lake County Local Assistance Center has been established to help victims and lists donation centers for physical items like food or clothing and volunteer and financial donation opportunities. And, of course, the Red Cross has been operating evacuation shelters.

The Lake County wine industry is also lending a huge hand. “Out of concern for survivors of the Valley Fire, Lake County winegrowers and winemakers have come together to establish the #LakeCountyRising fundraising campaign to raise funds for long-term community rebuilding efforts in those communities ravaged by the wildfire,” Dereniuk said.

You can get updates on these efforts anytime by following the #LakeCountyRising hashtag on Twitter and Lake County Rising on Facebook.

What else can you do to help Lake County rebuild? Tony Barthel, owner of the Featherbed Railroad Company bed-and-breakfast in Upper Lake, put it best. He wrote:

Frankly, the best thing you can do is plan a getaway here. Come eat at restaurants that employ people whose houses are gone. Come golf and taste and buy wine – some of our precious vineyards are gone, too. Shop at stores, have some fun. Bring your smiles and share them with everyone you see.

It’s been hard for many Lake County residents this summer, but you can help deliver hope and some much-needed happiness by showing your support with a donation, a volunteer contribution or just by heading to Lake County to shop and spend in helping to rebuild much of what has been lost. After what it’s been through, the region sure could use it.