On a windy Sunday one year ago Tuesday, Mitch Delariva stood on the roof of his house and brandished a hose, with a wet t-shirt wrapped around his face. He saw fires all around his house, saw smoke turn from grey to black, and knew he was in trouble.
Delariva: “I had a beautiful little house in a beautiful little neighborhood, but I knew if we ever had a fire out here, it would be catastrophic and this neighborhood would go.”
Mitch, his wife Dawn and their dog Comet lived in the forest above South Lake Tahoe, in a tight-knit community called Mountain View Estates – the heart of the Angora Fire zone. They’d bought their home on their wedding day, 10 years before it burned down. Now, they faced a decision.
Delariva: “We sat down and we had to have some heart-to-hearts. Okay, are we staying in Tahoe or not? Are we staying in this lot or not? And when you decide to stay, you make that decision and you go gung-ho.”
So just two days after the fire, Delariva started drawing up plans for a new house. He says he’d drive his wife crazy, waking her in the middle of the night to ask about floor plans. And for the next year, Delariva says, he basically ran a business.
Delariva: “We picked out everything we had for this house. Cause I’m the only one that could do it right. So if I want them to do it right, I gotta stand over their shoulder.”
Mountain View Estates was once a community in the heart of a thick, green forest. Today, among the dead trees and blackened stumps dotting the dusty landscape, new life is emerging. It’s a bustling construction zone, with houses in every stage of creation. An El Dorado County spokesman says 160 homes are either under construction or in the permitting process, though just a handful are all the way back. As some residents break ground, the Delarivas are putting the finishing touches on their wood-stained, A-frame cabin. They’ve now got just one inspection to go.
Delariva: “It’s not the house I had, but it’s my home and this is my neighborhood, and we feel like we’re getting our life back.”
Delariva says his insurance company was fantastic – he wouldn’t be this far along without it. But many other residents weren’t so lucky.
Nimtz: “A lot of deception, I feel, on my particular insurance company.”
Colombo: “We were insured for $315,000. It’s gonna cost over $600,000 to build the house. So it’s pretty brutal.”
Tom Nimtz and Tony Colombo say they were both underinsured – burned, so to speak, by the fine print in their contracts. They’re not the only ones. At this meeting last week in a house that survived the fire, insurance was one of the top complaints among the two dozen residents in attendance.
The other was bureaucracy. More than 50 government agencies have some sort of jurisdiction in the Tahoe Basin -- and, says Tom Nimtz:
Nimtz: “A lot of the agencies really don’t seem to be helping us out as much as they seem to all be saying they want to.”
Targets of complaints range from the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which oversees local development … to the El Dorado County Building Department and one of the local fire districts, Lake Valley. Residents say the regulators move too slowly, give conflicting information, set double standards, and change their rules.
Lambdin: “So I wanna welcome everybody and thank the Parkers, Mary and Vern …”
Monthly meetings like this one give homeowners a chance to share their progress and their problems.
Resident 1: “How many people had a really easy time with the Building Department?”
Resident 2: “Oh, god.”
Resident 1: “One. And then the other thing is our new fire marshal.”
Resident 1: “So there’s that.”
One person trying to cut through all that red tape is El Dorado County Supervisor Norma Santiago, whose district holds the fire zone. She’s attended all the meetings, and heard all the gripes. She tells the homeowners she expects the county to improve its customer service.
Santiago: “Things should start changing. But if you still are having issues, I want you to let me know about it. Because I’ve been promised certain things in terms of performance measures, and if they’re not happening, then I wanna know.”
Resident Paula Lambdin says she’s seen a roller coaster of emotions at these meetings from month to month.
Lambdin: “It was almost a party atmosphere initially. Then the next meeting, (there was) a lot of grieving, a lot of stress, a lot of frustration with everything. Total(ly) overwhelming. And now we’ve been able to move forward as a group for the most part.”
One year later, slowly but surely, Mountain View Estates is taking shape once again. It will be a long time before all the homes are rebuilt, the forest grows back and the signs of the Angora Fire fade away. But even so, says Mitch Delariva, it’s his neighborhood – and it’s where he’s gonna stay.
Delariva: “When that moving truck pulled out of this driveway, I was probably the most relieved I’d ever been in my life. I felt like the world had been lifted off my shoulders. I was just literally exhausted. And it felt good.”
It was nice, Delariva says, to be home.