As we learn more each day about the devastation brought about by the Butte Fire, we struggle to articulate the loss. We recount the homes and structures burned, the pets and livestock that didn’t make it, and the lives that have been darkened with smoke and ash. And still we do not have the words to describe the way our voices broke and tears welled up in our eyes as we surveyed the blackened landscape. Our friends and family are rendered mute as they stand amid the ruins of their homes.
Many of us who live in Calaveras County have seen fire before and we have seen fire losses before, most notably during the Old Gulch Fire in 1992. Yet, the 45 homes lost in ’92 are nothing compared to the 475 homes most recently reported lost in the Butte Fire. The 17,000 acres burned by the Old Gulch Fire are nothing compared to the 70,860 acres still smoldering.
As Josh White of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said at the town hall meeting in San Andreas on Sept. 12, this was “an epic fire” and “our worst nightmare.” Four years of catastrophic drought had left trees, understory growth and grassland tinder dry. Heat, wind, low humidity and steep terrain exacerbated the problem. Defensible space was rendered indefensible. Homes and lives were lost. The irreplaceable burned and burned and burned.
Yet, amid the stupefying loss, we may have discovered our better selves. I watched Supervisor Cliff Edson as he led the town hall meeting, watched as he reassured us that we would “make it through this tragedy” and be “stronger than we were before.” I saw the raw emotion on his face, the tears in his eyes, the depth of his compassion, bowed my head as he led us in prayer and felt reassured.
Yes, there was anger and frustration in the room. People were desperate for information. Is my home gone? Is the road open? When will the power be back on? But I was primarily impressed with the sense of community and concern as neighbor recognized neighbor and they embraced. Offers of help were made and repeated. They commiserated and mourned each other’s as-yet-undetermined losses. All I have seen since the fire began assures me that my community is inherently good, that we will take care of our own.
When my niece, her husband, and their 11-year-old son were evacuated, we took them in. Eventually we learned they had lost everything. Their home near Mountain Ranch is now nothing but rubble. Inexplicably, a patio table and umbrella survived, the bright red and yellow stripes of the umbrella a contrary spot of color on varying shades of ash, and we laughed at the irony, shook our heads at the contrary nature of destruction when it comes in the form of fire.
Reports of the fire’s direction, road closures and rumors had not boded well for their home. Still, learning about the loss of their home was a bit like learning that a loved one with a terminal illness had died. In spite of the fact that we knew it was coming, it was still a punch in the gut. We gasped at the pictures someone was able to get with a cell phone, because there was no longer any doubt. There was no more room for hope. We hugged each other tight. We cried, but not for long, because a numbing fatigue had set in. The only relief was that the waiting was finally done.
After being with us for 10 days, my niece and nephew moved in with one of their older sons in Mountain Ranch once the road was opened and power restored. The house is small but they prefer to be close to their homesite and in their own community, which affords the comfort of familiarity. My nephew is back at work, and my niece has returned to her volunteer job at the local food bank where she can distract herself from her own troubles by helping others. Their young son has returned to school with new shoes and clothes his cousins bought him. Their immediate and extended family is working to help in any way we can.
I have admired the strength my niece and her husband have displayed throughout this ordeal, but I think I was most impressed by their determination to be grateful in the face of so much loss. They stressed the positives. They are safe. They have a loving family. They have friends. They have a roof over their heads. They are not alone. Extraordinarily, they are again fostering hope in the face of so much as yet unknown. I have faith that we, the people of Calaveras County, will not let them or any of the fire’s survivors down.