Katya Cengel 2017-05-19 16:05:09
California Lions help a lower-income rural area recover after a disastrous fire burns more than 1,200 homes. Building a home deck on an ordinary Saturday afternoon, Stephan Wasik heard the first blast—a rising whistle followed by an explosion. “Hiss, hiss … pop!” After he heard two more propane tank explosions, Wasik stopped working. He lives on Cobb Mountain in thick forest cover, which makes it difficult to see your nearest neighbor, the road, or, in this case, the fire. Wasik ran to the end of the road to get a better look. A scorching wind pushed him back a step or two. Needles flew at him like hot pokers. Wasik is 62, retired from the tech industry but prides himself on staying active. He always thought if there were a fire he would stay and fight it. But as he saw the fire approaching, all he could think was: “It’s over.” He ran back to the two-bedroom, two-bath house he shared with his wife, Pam, and told her they had to leave. Before they ran out the door, he unplugged the crock pot in which they were cooking chicken soup. “You always think you’re going to go back,” says Pam. Below the mountain, in Middletown, Lion Craig Eve remembers odd details about the fire, too. A neighbor spilled water on the way out and stopped to mop it up because she didn’t want the firefighters to slip. When Eve’s daughter knocked over a stack of papers, his wife told her not to worry; they would clean it up later. Many of the fire victims say the same thing: they thought they would come back. Some did. But, unfortunately, not to their homes. John Cappa (right), president of the Cobb Mountain Lions Club, and Vice President Mike Dunlap stand in front of their clubhouse, used as a recovery center after the fire. More than 1,200 homes burned in the Valley Fire of September 2015, the third most destructive fire in California history. Started by faulty hot tub wiring at a home, the fire killed four people and destroyed more than 70,000 acres mostly in Lake County, a lower-income agricultural area with a population of around 64,000. California Lions continue to play a role in the recovery. It took three weeks for the Wasiks to receive official confirmation that their home was gone. A few months before the fire, their insurance carrier dropped them, says Pam, and no one else would pick them up. After the fire, they received around $33,000 through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and a state grant, says Stephan. They used some of the money to buy a trailer to live in and the rest on their new home, which is being built by the nonprofit Hope Crisis Response Network. The Indiana- based organization run by Kevin and Valerie Cox goes wherever calamity strikes—this time calling their project Hope City and setting out to build 110 homes in Lake County in the next five years with help from churches, corporations, grants and a rotating cast of volunteers. Hope City does not charge for the houses, which cost around $55,000 in materials for the small model, but recipients who were given FEMA grants contribute those funds to their new homes. The nonprofit was having trouble housing the volunteer teams who came each week and numbered anywhere from 10 to 45, until the Middletown Lions Club let them house volunteers in their clubhouse. Meanwhile, the Cobb Mountain Lions Club allowed a recovery center to operate out of its clubhouse for almost a year. The Wasiks are grateful for both clubs—Middletown for housing the Hope City volunteers who will build their home and Cobb for storing and distributing the food, water, clothing and household supplies they needed. “Between them [Lions Clubs] and Kevin Cox of Hope City, it was a lifeline,” said Pam. It was a week after the fire began that Lion Phyllis Rogers learned that the Cobb and Middletown Lions clubhouses had been spared and donations were pouring into the buildings. The clubhouses became information centers, places where volunteers gathered to help and victims came to find out what services were available to them, said Rogers, then district governor. Rogers received calls from the state’s 14 other district governors, all of them asking how they could help. Rogers told them to send money. They did: about $60,000 in cash and another $40,000 in donated campers, recreational vehicles and trucks. Another $10,000 came from Lions Clubs International Foundation, with an additional $10,000 almost a year later when fire struck again. The donations were sent to the district’s nonprofit Redwood Lions Memorial Foundation to buy supplies for a recovery center initially housed in Middletown and later moved to Cobb. Money also helped the clubs pay their ballooning utility bills for their clubhouses, used much more often after the fire. The funds also provided modest scholarships for high school seniors whose families lost their homes, says Redwood Foundation President Barry Bialkoski. Stephan and Pam Wasik lost their home in the 2015 Valley Fire. After the fire, they went to the Cobb Mountain Lions Club several times a week to pick up supplies and get the latest news from other fire victims. “When there’s a disaster in the Lions’ area we find ways to help,” says Bialkoski. Craig Eve, vice president of Middletown Lions Club, became Hope City’s go-to man early on. Whatever Hope City needed, said Valerie Cox, Eve and Middletown Lions found a way to get it to them. “We couldn’t be where we are with volunteers if they [Lions] hadn’t provided a place for us to house people,” said Cox. Eve didn’t do all of this from the comfort of his living room—that burned down in the fire. Out of Middletown Lions Club’s 26 members, eight lost their homes, said club Secretary Eldena Hanson-Russell. Eve was one of them. When he saw the fire in the distance he and his wife, Linda, and their 21-year-old daughter, Ashley, grabbed computers, papers, guns and pictures. Then they loaded their four dogs, four cats and eight pygmy goats into two trucks and a horse trailer and waited to see if the fire was going to come their way. When big fireballs started crashing at their feet they got in the trucks and drove away. The next morning a firefighter they know texted a picture of their chimney—all that was left of their home. The four-bedroom house had been in the family for years. In the past, whenever they tried to remodel it a relative would complain: “But Grandpa put that there” or “Grandma liked that window.” Now they will finally get their own house, what Craig calls “a new beginning.” In the meantime, while Craig builds their home, his family lives in two trailers. They are far from alone. As he drove around the area, Middletown Lions Immediate Past President Myron Meek pointed out the new and the destroyed houses, calling them out so often it was impossible to keep up. Craig Eve vice president of the Middletown Lions Club, is building a house after his own was destroyed in the fire. “This is new. Used to be one there. Used to be one here. One on top of the hill is new. All of this area is burnt through. There were 7,000 burnt vehicles in this lot,” says Meek, a 74-year-old former chemist. He kept the tally running as we drove through town, blocks of empty fields followed by spots of brand-new homes. In some places a home was left untouched; in others the bricks from a patio or a metal fence are all that is left. The owner of a home where only the pool is left has refused to return to look at the rubble. Meek’s nearby home was spared, but his neighborhood is half empty. The Middletown club took a hit as well. Two of the members who lost their homes left the area. Meek hadn’t been even sure who was around to give permission for the club’s 6,900-square-foot, wood-sided clubhouse to be used as a recovery center. His wife, Judy, a Lioness, volunteered at the center daily for more than two weeks; however, it wasn’t just Lions who helped there. “We didn’t want it to be a Lions’ activity,” said Judy, who is 72. “We wanted it to be a community thing, so it was kind of a healing.” Justin Myers, 22, an AmeriCorps member, works on a Hope City home in Middletown. The Middletown Lions’ building housed Hope City volunteers. After the recovery center moved to Cobb, the Middletown building housed Hope City volunteers for several months. Hope City also benefited from another Lions club when Rick and Joann Lydon donated their 36-foot motor home to the nonprofit in August 2016. “If I were ever in that situation I hope I would have somebody donate something to me too,” said Joann. The donation continues a more than 30-year-long tradition of California’s Pleasanton Lions Club members donating vehicles to worthy causes. The Cobb Lions have a different history. Their building, once a one-room schoolhouse built in 1887, was given to them with the understanding they would maintain it as a community center, says Vice President Mike Dunlap. The club has added onto to the original building in stages. Since the fire they have rededicated themselves to getting the community to use the space as a community center. First they need to renovate it. For that they need money, something they don’t have. Allowing the recovery center to operate full-time out of the club building for almost a year meant “the club essentially bankrupted itself,” says Dunlap. Like in Middletown, the center was manned by Lions and non-Lions such as Rose Geck. According to Geck, Barry Bialkoski, president of the Redwood Lions Memorial Foundation, was “instrumental in really helping us feel like ‘wow, we have somebody that we can count on to help us fill the needs of the community.’” When she needed bins to organize the clothes, Bialkoski got them for her. When she needed money for tools or shoes, Bialkoski provided it. ‘In some places a home was left untouched; in others the bricks from a patio or a metal fence are all that is left.’ Open long past most other recovery centers in the area, the center became known for being a place where fire victims could go to get a cup of coffee and talk to people like President John Cappa. When he joined Lions more than a decade ago, Cappa said it was what you did if you wanted to know everyone in the community. Since then, he said, the club has been in decline. At the time of the fire they had about 30 members. Six of those members lost their homes. But the fire also gave them new members. Dunlap joined after showing up to help out. Kelly Stuckey joined after going to the recovery center to get drinking water. When her now adult son was younger he was a Leo, and when Stuckey decided to join she brought him with her. He has since recruited his girlfriend. “The club had declined quite a bit in membership and activities,” says Dunlap. “The fire became kind of the last straw and kind of a rebirth too.” The fire destroyed more than 70,000 acres. Signs of the fire’s destructive path remain nearly two years later.
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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