Anderson Springs residents ponder future after Valley fire

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In a perfect world, most of us would still today have no idea what or where Anderson Springs is.

Off-the-radar remoteness and quietude are primary charms of the wooded, mountainside enclave between Middletown and Cobb that was born in 1873 as a hot springs resort. Ask full-time or second-home residents what else they’ve loved about Anderson Springs, and they’ll speak of the neighbors who’d do anything for you, the hilarious bocce games, the potluck suppers, the conspicuously clean air and water, long summer days in the communal swimming hole, outdoor movie nights and myriad other benefits of a tight, true, old-fashioned country community.

“It was a miracle of a place,” resident Angelo Parisi said. “An old-school kind of place.”

He and some of his neighbors describe Anderson Springs as a jewel that time passed by.

If only the Valley fire had, too. Media watchers around the world know that two residents of the historic little settlement off Highway 175, about 5 miles northwest of Middletown, perished when the firestorm roared through on Sept. 12 as though spewed by a blowtorch of the gods.

The inferno came close to obliterating Anderson Springs. Only a few of the approximately 200 homes and cabins remain. The recreation center, pavilion and snack shack that are treasured remnants of the 19th-century resort founded by Dr. Aleck Anderson of Vallejo likely would have burned but for the valor of resident Steve Shurelian, who fought off flames with a pair of garden hoses.

“That guy kept Anderson Springs’ heart beating,” said Parisi, who so adored this place that he commuted daily to his job as a postal carrier in Kenwood.

Only days ago, the homeowners and renters of once idyllic Anderson Springs were allowed to return and behold the hideous devastation. They ask themselves and each other, what now?

Some, such as Andrew Keeler and his wife, Sharon Gillenwater, are determined to rebuild their home, a vacation getaway for the past nine years, and to do whatever they can to bring back Anderson Springs.

Keeler, a Web and graphic designer living in San Francisco, said that to his family the primary attraction of Anderson Springs is not a now-destroyed home but a cherished rural location and community. “We were just so lucky to be part of it,” he said.

In the wake of the historically fast-moving and enormous fire, most of the residents of ravaged Anderson Springs today are scattered geographically. But they’re linked by social media, emails, informal gatherings and a desire to communicate about what the future holds for them and their neighborhood.

“I haven’t heard of anyone who would not come back,” Keeler said.

His wife Gillenwater, founder of a startup called Boardroom Insiders, would not relish constructing a new home in an Anderson Springs that lost many of the people who lived there before the fire. She said she knows some residents will not return, but she’s encouraged by the resolve of many neighbors to rebuild their homes and neighborhood.

“We thought we had a strong community before,” she said, “and it’s stronger than ever.”

Still, just two weeks after the fire, there are displaced Anderson Springs residents uncertain whether they want to go back, or if they’re up to taking on the regulatory and financial obstacles to reconstruction.

Postman Parisi, for one, can’t yet say whether he wants to rebuild the dream house that he built less than eight years ago, now reduced to a wretched heap of ash and ruin.

“It’s bad enough to have your house burn down. But most of my neighbors’ houses burned down, too,” he said.

“The place is just so altered.”

Parisi said he will have the remains of his home hauled away, and he’ll continue to pay his county taxes and his Anderson Springs homeowners’ association dues.

“But I think it’s going to be a while before I want to live there again. It’s depressing.”

The neighborhood’s Peggy Rose, who lived for six years in a rental house destroyed in the firestorm, is of a similar mind just now.

“I’ve lost all my belongings, my tools, the harvest from my garden, the garden itself, which is my livelihood,” she said.

“I was one week from closing escrow on a home in The Springs — that home is also toast. I am grieving the loss of my community but don’t know yet if I will return.”

Also grieving is Whitney Vosburgh — though his home is one of the few in Anderson Springs not devoured by the Valley fire.

“I have feelings of elation; I have feelings of despondency,” said Vosburgh, a Berkeley resident who works as a brand and marketing consultant. He has owned a vacation home in Anderson Springs the past three years.

Though it was virtually untouched by the flames, he said, “in a physical sense, I lost my home, my home being the community. I look across the street at a scene of utter devastation.” He deals also with what he suspects is survivor’s guilt.

Vosburgh is in touch with displaced neighbors through Facebook, a Yahoo group and other linkages, and he’s aware that most harbor deep concerns about myriad issues: Will the predicted El Niño rains come and cause serious erosion? What assistance, if any, will residents receive from the government and community relief efforts? Will building regulations allow them to construct homes at all similar to the ones that burned?

“There are so many questions and so few answers,” Vosburgh said. Yet, despite the uncertainty and anxiety, he senses among many burned-out Anderson Springs residents a resolve to restore their homes and community and, beyond that, to make them better than before the fire.

“It’s going to take a lot of planning and patience and cooperation,” he said, “and just good old-fashioned luck.”

Doug Bartlett and his wife, Jacqueline, lost two side-by-side homes in Anderson Springs even though both had metal roofs and the couple had been diligent about cutting back trees and vegetation.

“We were being good citizens, but it just didn’t work,” said Doug Bartlett, the marketing manager for BART, Bay Area Rapid Transit. “Frankly, nothing would have.”

He finds himself in a unique position to encourage those neighbors whose houses were insured that they can one day enjoy a better home in an upgraded Anderson Springs. Fifteen years ago, his family’s house on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill burned down.

Bartlett tells fellow victims of the Valley fire to gird themselves to fight for fair settlements from their insurance companies and to anticipate designing and building homes or cabins nicer than the ones they lost.

“I’ve been through this,” he said. He counsels others who mourn the destruction of their homes and the near-eradication of the hallowed, historic hideaway of Anderson Springs that a new day is coming.

“Don’t get lost in sorrow,” he urges. “Think forward. Think future.”

For complete wildfire coverage go to:

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and On Twitter @CJSPD.

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