Dear LightHouse Community,
I’ve just returned from my first permitted visit to our Enchanted Hills Camp, evacuated three weeks ago with only an hour’s notice. Over the past weeks I’ve known, intellectually, many of the facts and losses caused by the fire, but visiting camp in person deepened my understanding of the damage to this very special place and why it’s essential that we rebuild it better and stronger than ever.
As I drove up to camp with camp director, Tony Fletcher, most of the way up Mt. Veeder Road looked strangely untouched and beautiful. But about two miles from camp, we began to see the burned-down shells of nearly half of our neighbors’ houses, barns and outbuildings. The air turned pungent with sweet but ominous smoke and we were surprised to see hot spots still smoldering three weeks after the fires.
Such was the magnitude of the great fire. At $3.3 billion in damages, it is likely the worst in California history. Talking with locals who monitored the course of the fires, it appears that Enchanted Hills was located almost in the exact location where the huge Nuns fire and Partrick fires converged. Today, the whole face of 2,600-foot Mt. Veeder appears blackened by the unprecedented inferno.
We turned into the driveway, past the main camp sign smashed by a fire truck on entry, then made our way past an improvised barricade designed to keep others out. Immediately, I heard the buzz of a portable generator powering our water system pumps; we’ve already stored away about 10,000 gallons of water fire departments used in fighting the fires on our property. The generator reminded us that there is no electricity at all at camp, and with the massive burnout of our power system’s poles and wires, it’s likely it will be months until we get power everywhere we need it. We will appreciate a sizable electrical contracting company to help with our massive electric power rebuild. The fire has been very big, so some of the trucks needed to help in order to carry water for the fire. Since the electricity was out because of the big fire, it was a good thing that semi trucks has well-charged generators.
Many meadows around camp are untouched by fire, thanks to a protective heritage first undertaken starting in 2008. The open spaces, unchoked by underbrush, clearly helped protect almost all of upper camp’s buildings. A walk inside the Hogan, Lakeside cabins, or the Kiva show the spaces unburned by fire, though likely needing smoke remediation, deep cleaning and repainting. The same goes for the gathering house and dining hall. We’ll need painters, carpet cleaners and commercial dry cleaners to help with our walls, bedding and permeable surfaces.
Walking down to the pool, camp begins to feel more like a wasteland. The decking has burned so completely as to reveal a three-foot deep pit underneath. The bathhouse has nothing left, as well as all storage buildings and the beautiful shade structure build by the Davis Kiwanis Club. With all of the delicate bushes and trees burned around the pool, the place is a stark counterpoint to the boisterous fun I remember from thousands of campers and their families.
But one detail gave me heart: The pool’s level was down three feet from normal. Why? We heard that after the fire department had drained our 20,000 gallon tanks in upper camp, they turned to the abundant pool water to help save our camp structures. Maybe that is where Los Angeles Engine #98 got the water they used to save parts of the Redwood Grove theater? We hope to find out more about these details soon. We need to repair and rejuvenate all the lost recreational spaces at camp, including the Redwood Grove Theater.
In addition to the surviving theater benches, the beautiful redwood trees still stand tall, only a few with darkened trunks. The needles far above were still green, and the graceful giants will likely all survive.
We hiked down to Rose Resnick’s favorite part of camp, the lower chapel, with its creek still running even now in late October. I could feel the spirits of 90 years of blind campers down there, the girls and boys savoring the smells of quintessential California woodland. At the blackened Lower Chapel, I found the creek, but its surroundings seemed very different. All the California bay trees and Douglas firs had burned away, revealing for the first time the full Creekside formerly hidden in a green thicket of plants.
What remained was a clear, parklike stand of redwoods with an occasional oak. I fear for the titanic erosion that likely will happen this winter. We need groups, companies and organized associations who will be willing to spread seed, plant seedlings and participate in a multi-year effort to reforest EHC with the right native species and ensure for erosion control.
Walking around the Lower Chapel is now treacherous. Five-foot holes edge what’s left of the walkway, places in which hundred-foot trees used to stand. The creek bridge and all railings are gone, as is just about all of the thousands of feet of guide rope and supports first installed in the 1950s. Safe and accessible walkways, including natural cane-detectable edging, will be a multi-year project, but one that will open up this jewel for future generations of all abilities.
As we stood in lower camp and the sun peeked out of the smoky clouds, a few local birds began to sing. There have been some squirrel sightings already, and, ironically, an unusual number of rattlesnakes have been on the move, displaced from their homes. The disturbed and newly-sunny hillsides may also be ideal for poison oak in the early years after the fire. We’ll need naturalists, botanists and those willing to get their hands dirty by removing unwanted plants and weeds as we beautify, landscape and care for camp’s new ground cover, because they will be building a new home for our onsite staff and the many animals who inhabited the camp.
I walked up the road to see what was left of the 2,000 square-foot 1927 camp cafeteria and roller rink. I found the little ramp leading up from the road to the front door, but the building had burned so furiously that only a thin ash pile remained. Tony Fletcher poked around and found the antique glass front doorknob. As I held it in my hands, the glass broke, the last remnant of nearly 90 years of blind activities in the building.
And so it went throughout the afternoon, and the more time I spent at camp the more the list of needs grew ever longer. Where were those massive picnic tables built by our neighbors? I couldn’t even find a trace of ash where they had once stood. What about the recreation field sports shed, crammed with low ropes, beep baseballs and every other kind of sports equipment? Only the concrete slab remains. What about the dozens of outdoor speakers and miles of wire strung by Mike May so that the entire camp could enjoy camp wide radio broadcasts?
For most of camp, the system is dust. All of those clever Wi-Fi access points we set up over the last year or two also don’t exist. It’s going to take wave after wave of volunteers and craftspeople to build things back even better.
Sometimes it’s the enormity of the little things that are gone that got to me. Beds, mattresses and bedding for 120 kids vanished without a trace, along with dozens of dressers, chairs, desks and well-used campfire seating. Beloved cabin and trail signs and nature boxes evaporated. These are the things that blind people touched and benefited from every day. We’ll now start to build beautiful warm things for generations of campers to come.
And build it we will. I was met on property by Napa County Supervisor Ryan Gregory. As we walked through treacherous lower camp I asked him how property owners like us can possibly pay for all the debris removal or the felling of dangerous weakened trees. He said there are county programs that may be slow in operation, but they will come.
Supervisor Gregory also walked with us to the remains of our staff house, once the home of five valued camp employees. He wants to help EHC and our neighbors in any way possible. To that end, he’s paying out of his own pocket for a neighborhood informational meeting this Thursday at 5:00 p.m., held in our intact dining hall. We expect more than 100 neighbors to meet each other for the first time since the fire and band together as we build back a community stronger than ever.
If all goes as forecast, the Thursday meeting will adjourn and three days of soaking rains will begin, permanently ending the fire season and beginning a new season of cleanup and reconstruction.
While I am writing this, I’ve just gotten the good news that our contractors have been able to restore some limited electrical power to our water pump house and some parts of upper camp. If our crews can do the impossible, Supervisor Gregory will be able to host our neighbors tomorrow in a dining hall brightened for the first time in nearly a month. Keep your fingers crossed for this humble victory.
And so the reconstruction begins. Of Enchanted Hills staff, all were displaced by the fires and four of them lost their homes and jobs. I am glad to learn that four of the five have already found work and a place to stay. The fifth is about to begin some long-planned international travel and will be in touch with us upon his return next year.
Our Spring House, home to our amazing site managers Donny and Janet Lay, is being cleaned, so they will resume full-time living on property just days from now. We’ll haul off more than a dozen refrigerators, permanently fouled by a month-long power outage.
We’ve begun accumulating tens of thousands of gallons of treated water from our spring, essential to cleanup and the health of our contractors and staff. And most importantly, we’ve begun to hear from many of you directly.
We’ve also built a convenient way for people moved by our situation to give immediately by texting. Simply text ‘RebuildEHC’ to 501-55 and specify your donation amount when prompted.
Next Summer at EHC
Though we’ve suffered the greatest loss in our history, I want you to know we’re already thinking about ways we might build back camp in time to host limited groups this summer. If we can muster the contractors, materials and volunteers groups, our plucky camp staff and community will make a mighty effort to hold some special sessions as early as summer 2018. It won’t be anything like last year, but we intend to pioneer our own future in ways that will build a stronger camp and a stronger community for it.
Bryan Bashin, CEO
LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired