|The entry arch of the Clearlake Oaks, Calif., home of Patsy Thorburn, which burned in the Wye Fire on Sunday, August 12, 2012. The arch and one portion of wall are all that remain of the home’s structure. Photo by Jessica Wilson.|
CLEARLAKE OAKS, Calif. – Amidst the charred acreage left behind by a wildland fire complex that burned east of Clearlake Oaks earlier this month is a freestanding rock archway.
It’s what’s left of the spired house on a hill overlooking Clear Lake that the Thorburn family built more than two decades ago.
The family’s dream home came to its end in a nightmarish scenario, with Patsy Thorburn barely escaping from her hilltop residence before it was consumed by flames on Sunday, Aug. 12, when the Wye Fire tore through the hills along Highway 20.
By the time it was fully contained on Saturday, Aug. 18, the Wye Fire – which included two fires, the Wye and Walker – burned a total of 7,934 acres, destroyed three structures and damaged two others, and led to the evacuations of the Spring Valley and Wilbur Hot Springs areas. The causes of both fires remain under investigation.
Thorburn would lose her home, all of her possessions – including family photos and mementos – as well as her beloved cats, Muffin and Sylvester, and was within mere feet of the flames as she escaped her burning property.
Despite that experience, Thorburn and her family are moving forward, trying to recover from what her daughters said is a tragedy for their entire family.
The home now is a burned ruin, with just the rock arch that framed the front door and a portion of wall still standing.
Yet, the family said the 90-acre property where the home sat remains beautiful despite its new scars.
“It has an aura of peace up there,” said Thorburn.
Her daughter, Cathy Wilson, agreed. “The fire can’t take that essence.”
|The entry arch of the home Patsy and Max Thorburn built near Clearlake Oaks, Calif. It was destroyed in the Wye Fire on Sunday, August 12, 2012. Now only the stone archway remains. Photo by Brandt Petersen.|
A family effort
The home, sitting on a cliff above Clearlake Oaks, with a vast view of Clear Lake, was a family gathering place. It hosted Christmases and other holidays. A family member proposed to his wife there. Wilson’s wedding reception took place at the home and the Thorburns’ other daughter, Melody, held the ceremony there for her wedding to Scott De Leon.
Patsy Thorburn and husband, Max, raised their daughters in a home not far from the nearby quarry. Later, they purchased the property overlooking the lake, where they didn’t initially plan to build a home.
However, Melody De Leon recalled how her father first confided in her that he wanted to build a home on the hilltop site.
Patsy Thorburn remembered only asking that the house have a bigger pantry. She got that as part of the 4,200-square-foot home that she and Max built in 1990.
The look of the house was unique inside and out. On the roof were several cones or spires, which Patsy Thorburn said had a habit of multiplying when she told her husband she didn’t like them.
Inside was wood paneling, tile and ornate woodwork. Max Thorburn was born in Scotland, and the Scottish national symbol – the thistle – appeared in touches around the home, including stair railing details and a tile mosaic at the front entrance.
|The front of the Thorburn home near Clearlake Oaks, Calif. It was destroyed in the Wye Fire on Sunday, August 12, 2012. Photo by Brandt Petersen.|
Daughter Melody would come home on summer weekends from her real estate job in the Bay Area to do masonry work on the home project, including the rock wall that extended out along the front of the property.
While working on the house she met a young engineer, Scott De Leon, who was working for her father. She and De Leon later married. Today he serves as Lake County’s director of Public Works.
The land has a big pine tree that Max Thorburn liked to climb. His wife recalled coming home at times to find the tree swaying, with her husband perched at the top. His daughters said he liked to yell out and startle them from the treetop while they were hanging out by the pool.
Max Thorburn would enjoy the home and land until his death in August 1997.
“It was his grand finale,” said daughter Melody.
Trying to escape
On the afternoon of Aug. 12, Patsy Thorburn was home alone. Her partner, Hank Everett, was out; he was expected back later in the day from Ukiah.
She heard sirens going up Highway 20. Shortly before 4 p.m., firefighters had been dispatched to the Walker Fire, near Walker Ridge Road east of Clearlake Oaks. She said she turned on her scanner to find out what was going on.
Just minutes after 4 p.m., the Wye Fire, at the intersection of Highway 20 and 53 – visible from Thorburn’s house – began. Thorburn said she watched it begin to burn, and then jump the highway.
From there, it moved rapidly up the hill, toward Thorburn’s home.
She went to get her front gate open, tried to gather some belongings and called her cats – Muffin, a small female Siamese, and Sylvester, a big female tuxedo cat. The cats didn’t appear.
Thorburn went to back her car out of the garage to load things up, and by the time she got the car out, the driveway was on fire.
“It was so quick,” she said.
The roof to the patio was on fire and she couldn’t go back to the house, which she said the flames descended on rapidly.
“I saw the house just explode,” she said.
She couldn’t get down the driveway, which was blocked by flames.
Thorburn said she didn’t know at that point that Lake County Fire Chief Willie Sapeta had tried to come up her driveway to find her but the flames blocked him.
He and Cal Fire officials recounted at a Monday community meeting how they had been unable to reach her, and had diverted air resources to the area of the home to try to give her a way out.
Sapeta said that hearing the reports of Thorburn being trapped and beyond the reach of firefighters nearby brought he and other personnel on scene to tears.
On the other side of the flames, Thorburn wasn’t giving up.
|The view from the Thorburn home near Clearlake Oaks, Calif. On Sunday, August 12, 2012, Patsy Thorburn would watch the Wye Fire burn up the hill toward her home, which the fire destroyed. Photo by Brandt Petersen.|
Her late husband had cleared an area for a golf driving range, and she drove around on that, dodging the flames, looking for a way out.
The car was filled with smoke and covered by ash. “I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t see,” she said.
While Thorburn had left the house without her purse or the rest of her belongings, she did have her cell phone.
She managed to get 13-year-old grandson, Max De Leon, on the phone.
Her grandson showed amazing calm, comforting his grandmother. “Be safe,” he told her.
When they hung up, Max called his mother. Melody De Leon then called 911, with dispatch reporting that they had just spoken to her mother.
When Thorburn could see through the smoke, she got down the driveway and out onto the highway, heading west toward Clearlake Oaks. After she got out, trees fell across her driveway.
On the highway, Thorburn met up with firefighters, who asked where she had come from, since the road was blocked off. Another fire truck came up and told the firefighters with Thorburn to get her out of the area.
She drove down to the Highway 20 and Highway 53 intersection, meeting a family member there. Her daughters met her at the nearby shopping center before taking her to stay with them. Wilson said it was good to be together.
Within hours, Cal FIre reported that the fire had scorched thousands of acres. Hundreds of people in the Spring Valley area were evacuated from its path.
The family said they were upset to see pictures of the burned home broadcast on Bay Area television; the video had clearly been shot from the property, which news teams were allowed to access before the family was allowed back.
Nearby, the Hue De Laroque family’s farm was hit by the fire, with damage to the farm’s garden, orchard and vineyard.
A fire break helped save their home, but the family’s farming business was devastated. The solar equipment used to power the farm and home also were destroyed.
A Web site to help the Hue De Laroques has been set up at www.giveforward.com/huedelaroque .
|The living and dining rooms of Patsy Thorburn’s Clearlake Oaks, Calif., home. The home burned in the Wye Fire on Sunday, August 12, 2012. Photo by Brandt Petersen.|
On the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 14 – two days after the fire erupted – Thorburn and her family went back to the property for the first time once cleared to do so by fire officials.
“The first few days, you treat it with reverence,” Wilson said.
The remains of the house were still smoldering; they were so hot Wilson’s shoes and gloves melted.
The burned ruin of the house yielded few treasures beyond a cast iron dutch oven that had belonged to Thorburn’s mother, found by son-in-law Steve Wilson. Her other son-in-law, Scott De Leon, was able to dig one of the spires out of the rubble.
“It’s just ash,” Thorburn said of her home.
An American flag on the flagpole near the swimming pool, the goldfish in a little pond and Max Thorburn’s favorite climbing tree escaped unscathed.
The family found no sign of Muffin and Sylvester, Patsy Thorburn’s cats. “There was no place for them to go,” she said.
|A remaining wall of the Thorburn home near Clearlake Oaks, Calif. It was destroyed in the Wye Fire on Sunday, August 12, 2012. Courtesy photo.|
There were, however, signs of wildlife, including a coyote with burned paws and a burned tail spotted by Cathy Wilson.
Thorburn said she doesn’t know if she’ll rebuild. She said he’s renting a home in Glenhaven for the short-term.
She and her family are grateful for the unbelievable outpouring of love and support they’ve received from the community.
“You have no idea how many friends you have until your house burn down,” said Melody De Leon.
Thorburn is saddest about the loss of her cats and pictures, but as for the rest, “Things you can replace.”
Her home’s destruction was the worst thing that Thorburn said has ever happened to her, and her family said it’s a tragedy for all of them.
Just weeks after she narrowly escaped with her own life, Thorburn concluded, “I guess I’m meant to be here for some reason.”
Email Elizabeth Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org .
The Wye Fire was sparked on Sunday, August 12, 2012, near Clearlake Oaks, Calif. It eventually scorched 7,934 acres and destroyed three structures, including the home Patsy Thorburn and her late husband, Max, had built, which had sat near the top of the hill in the center of the picture. Courtesy photo.