TUOLUMNE COUNTY — Officials are making sure the firefighters battling the massive Rim fire are getting paid, fed and sheltered.
But that has not stopped residents and businesses here from showing their thanks to the more than 5,100 firefighters, police officers and other first responders assigned to the wildfire by baking them cookies, giving them bottled water, cooking them dinner and feeding them at community barbecues.
Some restaurants are offering free soda, coffee, iced tea and dessert as well as discounts. For instance, Jeb's Hill Country Cooking is giving first responders 20 percent off any item on the menu.
But several restaurants report that some firefighters can't pay their bill because other diners insist on paying it.
And then there are the signs. It seems as though the entire county is plastered in homemade signs thanking firefighters and other first responders. The signs are attached to overpasses, fences and walls and in shop windows and even written on car windows.
Several veteran firefighters said they have never been treated as warmly as they have in Tuolumne County.
"It's definitely an awesome experience to see a community come together like that and show their appreciation to the firefighters," said Chip Fowler, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection captain from Oroville.
Fowler is talking about the barbecues in Twain Harte over the past week for the first responders based there.
Expressions of gratitude
Residents, businesses and others have put on the community meals. As part of that effort, the China House of Twain Harte will have a free buffet from 4 to 8 p.m. today for the first responders.
"It's life in a small town; everyone comes together to help," China House owner Larry Nieh said.
Sugar Pine and Tuolumne City offer two more examples.
Alicia's Sugar Shack in Sugar Pine has been providing firefighters and other first responders with free coffee and breakfast since last week. Owner Alicia Hartle said Thursday she could do that because the community had donated about $4,500 to her business to feed the first responders.
"This was spontaneous," she said about the donations.
Firefighters say they are professionals who are getting paid to do a job. They don't expect the community to feed them home-cooked meals. And fire authorities urge residents to donate to organizations, such as the Red Cross, helping those affected by the wildfire.
Donations continue flowing
Several evacuation advisories have been issued since the Rim fire started Aug. 17 and 11 homes have been destroyed. But officials with the Red Cross and other organizations say they have not been forgotten. They said community members have stepped forward with donations.
Tuolumne City resident Ron Hamilton and his family, along with three other families and other residents, fed the firefighters protecting their community last week.
As many as 225 firefighters each night dined on lemon chicken or tri-tip with baked beans or meatloaf with country mashed potatoes and gravy. They came in shifts and sat at tables in the Hamiltons' front yard. Community members delivered dinners to firefighters who could not leave their posts.
Hamilton said he knows the firefighters are professionals, but they can be away from home for weeks at a time putting out wildfires.
"It's our way of giving them a taste of hospitality," he said. "We just reached out to guys who were missing their families and fed them."
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2316.