California resident Jeff Lyles is no stranger to the kind of devastation brought on by natural disasters.
In 2005, his family was living in New Orleans, Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina hit and saw firsthand how lives were turned upside down by the storm.
Now, 15 years later, the Lyles family lost their home in Deer Park, California to the Glass Fire, which ignited overnight Sunday. That same evening, while watching the New Orleans Saints play, Lyles had a suspicion his home fell victim to the wildfire.
“I got a notification on my phone that said our alarm system had lost radio contact with the cell tower at seven something on Sunday night,” Lyles told NBC News over Zoom Thursday. “And that’s when I sort of started to accept what I could be walking back into.”
When Lyles, 33, and his dad pulled into their driveway on Tuesday, they saw what little remained of their Napa Valley home: a mailbox next to a pile of debris and metal frames.
“The hardest part was the smell and the feeling of my memories, glass, plaster, house frames, everything crunching and crushing beneath my feet as I walked where I used to live and where some of the happiest memories in my life were,” Lyles said.
This home was the site of many of Lyles’ fondest memories, he said, like sharing his first kiss with his girlfriend. The couple had even considered, at one point, getting married at the home.
“Our whole story was kind of based around that property,” he said.
Lyles’ family moved to Deer Park in 2013 and he said the community there has treated him like a local “since the day I got here.”
“That heart and that soul and every drop of wine that has been pressed, crushed, fermented created, is the lifeblood of this place,” he said.
One of the things that survived the fire was three pieces of iron, left over from three bar stools that once sat at the Lyles’ kitchen island, where the family would have coffee every morning.
“Some of the tougher arguments that I’ve ever had with my mom and dad, and some of the most pivotal, amazing life changing conversations for the positive that have shaped me about who I am, were the only three pieces of iron that were still standing right there.”
Lyles said the sight of it brought him back to the devastation his family saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — and how this feels different.
“When I walked into those houses, the first time I drove into New Orleans and saw that it was just completely devastated…what was left in these homes was molded, but there were trophies, there were baby pictures, there was people’s dressers on the second floor that were still intact,” he said.
What remains of his home in Deer Park instead was “ash,” Lyles said. “There was not a sign of life or color as far as the eye can see.”
The Glass Fire has already damaged nearly 400 buildings and grown to 58,880 acres. As of Thursday night, it’s been five-percent contained.
But while the fire has wreaked havoc on the community he’s come to call home, Lyles said he’s looking forward to its “rebirth” once the fire is out. He said the term rebirth came into his life in 2005, when he was living in New Orleans and many people had doubts about how the city would come back from Hurricane Katrina.
“I have absolutely no doubts whatsoever that we are going to come back better,” Lyles said. “We’re going to come back stronger. We’re going to come back greener. We’re going to come back smarter. We’re going to build better.”
The Lyles family is waiting to see what happens with the properties around theirs before they decide how and when to rebuild, but one thing is certain: they aren’t going anywhere.
“I’m not leaving,” Lyles said. “I may not live on the same property, but I will never leave my community.”