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September 17, 2015

A familiar sign in Calaveras County – with a new footnote
(Note: We have refrained from including any photos of people or damaged structures)

On Wednesday morning, September 16, at 11:25 am, the California Highway Patrol finally issued a long-anticipated update: “SR-26 from Mokelumne Hill to SR-88 is now open.” The road to our mountain property was finally clear.

By this point, the Butte Fire had reached 71,780 acres and was 45 percent contained. So far, assessors had counted 233 residences and 175 outbuildings destroyed. There had been one fatality, a resident of Jesus Maria Road about five miles west of us. The California Department of Forestry advised that “The wind will be strong enough to carry embers 1 /3 to 3/4 of a mile. These embers may turn into spot fires as the humidity decreases. Any spot fire will have a moderate to rapid rate of spread dependent on the fine dead fuel moisture.”

Needless to say, we were anxious to get up to our property. But we would need a good day of preparation. The power was still out, which meant that we would have no light, refrigeration or water. (our cooktop was on propane.) Gail put out a request for supplies on Facebook, and was inundated with responses. (Thank you, everyone!) Friends graciously loaned their coolers and lanterns. Russell’s brother-in-law Matt had several five-gallon jugs of water. Gail’s mom gave us several donation goods for the evacuation centers.

Gail checked in with our neighbor Scott, who confirmed that the steep quarter-mile dirt road from Highway 26 to our house was clear and drivable. He also confirmed, once again, that our mountain home was still standing.

On Thursday morning, we stopped at Matt’s office, which was getting rid of several large shelving units. We finally got on the road at 10:30 for the two-and-a-half-hour drive ahead.

Our van, full of water jugs, metal shelves, donations… and our own stuff

We stopped at our usual gas station in Lockeford, where we met Cynthia and her mother Gay. Gay had evacuated from her home in Mountain Ranch, and was going to try to get back into the area today. It was still evacuated, but she was going to try her luck. She had no idea if it was still there, but she was hopeful.

In Gold Country we stopped in the town of Burson, where there was an evacuation center at the local church. When Staci, the supervisor, heard that we had shelving to donate, she was ecstatic. When Joe, the warehouse man, heard that we would assemble it ourselves, he invited us to stay for lunch.

The evacuation center in Burson (That’s Aaron’s semi cab in the background)
Gail assembles the metal shelves donated by Matt

The evacuation center itself was an absolute hive of volunteers sorting bags and bags and bags of donated clothes. Other volunteers served food, including from a local Pizza food truck.

In addition to a couple of really cute babies, we met a couple of really nice people. Shep had lost his one-person trailer home in Mountain Ranch, after having previously lost his boat in a storm in Alameda a decade earlier. Aaron’s home in West Point had survived, but the area was still under evacuation. So he and his wife had been living for days – with their six dogs (!) – in the cab of his semi truck. Both men were cheerful and optimistic, despite what they were going through.

Outside of Mokelumne Hill, we could see the effects of the Butte Fire on the landscape

As we neared Mokelumne Hill, we thought that there would be some sort of checkpoint. There wasn’t. We crossed Highway 49 and entered the boundaries of the Butte Fire.

The further east we drove, the worse things looked. There were areas where the once-forested terrain looked completely burned out. The Boston Vale was gone. Granny’s Back Acres was gone. Russell was taking video through the windshield to document for our sons. At one point, a woman in a vehicle next to us became incensed that we were taking pictures of the devastation.

When Gail explained that we were also local property owners, the woman’s disposition completely changed. Katrinka, a resident of Moke Hill, had lost everything she had, including her home. Gail spent quite a while chatting with her and hearing her story.

Some of the fire’s devastation along Highway 26

An amazing photo: this house outside of Moke Hill survived the fire (Source: Randall Benton, Sacramento Bee)

As we drove closer to Glencoe, we passed a property where just about everything had burned except for the house. Steve, the owner, came down to chat with us. He had just moved here two years ago from Alameda in the Bay Area.

We commented that we have never seen so many cars on Highway 26. Steve told us that the agencies and contractors were in Heaven. Agencies were going into properties and taking trees out before the owners could return. Contractors were trying to drum up business.

We had also read several stories about looters in the area. In Mountain Ranch, the local officials had to rescind all of the animal rescue permits they had issued, because looters were using those permits to get into closed areas. In one case, authorities arrested a looter who had fake police credentials.

Between the police, CalTrans, PG&E and other cars, we have never seen so much traffic on Highway 26

It amazes us that tragedies such as the Butte Fire can bring out the absolute worst in humanity. It is so reassuring that everyone we have met has been so open, caring and supportive. One of the things we love about this mountain community is that everyone treats each other as a neighbor or family.

It was almost 4:00 pm before we finally turned off Highway 26 onto our property. We were home.

Some areas remain closed where the fire is still raging. This is Jesus Maria Road, off of Highway 26 outside of Moke Hill


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