In the wake of the Butte Fire, the people of Mountain Ranch have worked tirelessly together to care for their friends and neighbors whose homes were burned or rendered uninhabitable by the flames that began just over a month ago. The small town was spared but the surrounding countryside was devastated. Providing help and support has been a point of pride for the citizens of the town previously known as El Dorado, the golden one. As one resident put it, “Mountain Ranch will look back and say we took care of our own.”

Mountain Ranch Park became much like a refugee center as donations poured in and members of the Mountain Ranch Community Club, the Mountain Ranch Youth Alliance, and the Food Pantry were joined by local businesses, faith-based organizations and a wealth of individual volunteers to keep the fire’s victims supplied with necessities like food, water, clothing, toiletries, tents and sleeping bags.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, some survivors were camped out on the ball field. Many survivors came to the park to take advantage of the portable showers and the laundry service. Still more came for the hot meals, pet supplies and even hay. Some fared better than others. Some were grateful to be alive. Some were blank. All are waiting for what feels like a lumbering bureaucracy to fulfill its promises.

The Sender family, owners of Sender’s Market, stepped up repeatedly to meet the needs of their community with donated goods and services including a large freezer unit, which has supplied the ice that so many have needed to keep their perishable food fresh. Through the Calaveras County Association of Realtors, Mountain Ranch Realty offered help with temporary housing, rent deposits and power pole permit fees.

The women who took on the organization of the piles and mounds and heaps of donations have my profound admiration. Some of those women are Katie McConniel, Katie Clark, Penny Pohlman, Stacie Albright and Robin Swortfiguer. The sheer volume of used and often unusable clothing was daunting, but they persevered even when they were faced with the complication of impending rain. They brought order to what was once a depressing disarray of good intentions.

I am determined to believe that we are inherently good, but I was dismayed to see what some people considered a worthy donation. There were shoes that were worn out and misshapen and clothes that were long past their usefulness. One donor drove in with two old TVs that I doubt even worked. Perhaps Mountain Ranch Park was closer than the dump. Still, for all those who abused the opportunity to donate, there were many more that brought so much that was gently used or brand new.

Unfortunately, such items proved to be a temptation to some. I heard stories of trucks of people that would come in the middle of the night and help themselves to the best of the donated items with the likely intention of selling them on eBay or at some flea market. The boldest of these thieves even came during the day, pretending to be victims. Nevertheless, this sad commentary was overridden by the generosity of the majority. And Mountain Ranch persevered.

The community now wants government agencies to take over the fire relief effort so that local volunteers can get back to their lives. Volunteer leaders have struggled to explain the complexities of providing services to some of the area’s more reclusive residents. There are problems related to communication and transportation. Many people do not have Internet access, phone service or even mail delivery, as mailboxes and road signs have burned. There are those who are reluctant to trust government entities, because their home may not have been permitted. There may even be a few who are growing illegal crops.

There will be many challenges as we move from the immediate disaster response to long-term recovery. We have to learn how to sustain the impulsive generosity that met the fire initially. We need to remind people that it will take time and lots of it to restore Mountain Ranch and all those Calaveras communities that have been affected by the fire. At a meeting on Oct. 8 in Mountain Ranch, a representative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated the recovery plan could take from 18 months to five years or more.

Given the wealth of donated goods that have exceeded the community’s capacity to store them, the best thing to do for the long-term Mountain Ranch fire recovery effort is to make a tax-deductible financial contribution to the Mountain Ranch Community Club. Put Fire Relief Fund in the memo line and mail to Mountain Ranch Community Club, P.O. Box 122, Mountain Ranch, CA 95246. They’re taking care of their own. Let’s give ’em a hand.

Muriel Zeller is a poet, writer and Valley Springs resident. Contact her at


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