On Sept. 10, when the Butte fire exploded over a ridge just a few miles from Arthur Morton’s Mountain Ranch home, he stood at the highest point of his property with a neighbor. Both knew they had just minutes to evacuate safely.
When Morton returned to his property the following week, his worst fears were realized; he had lost everything. The two homes on his 40-acre hillside plot were utterly destroyed.
The overwhelming majority of the 475 homes lost from the Butte fire were in the Mountain Ranch area.
On Saturday, Morton walked into the Mountain Ranch Relief Center looking for a pair of work boots and a pair of trousers. He was helping a neighbor that day and said, “Short pants and sandals just don’t make it.”
Despite losing everything, the 68-year-old Navy veteran and family man was overwhelmed by the community’s generosity. It brought tears to his eyes to see the relief center. In addition to new work boots from Minuteman Survival Supply in Jackson, Alan Duncan at Al’s Tire in San Andreas gave him a Bronco truck. Morton cannot stop talking about the wonderful people of our Mother Lode communities.
The relief center was set up at Mountain Ranch Community Park just a few days after the evacuation order was lifted. It is supported by the Mountain Ranch Needs and Volunteers group created on social media. Donations and scores of cheerful volunteers have come from every direction, demonstrating social media’s value during a crisis.
After all the evacuation orders were lifted, the county transformed the Board of Supervisors chambers into a temporary one-stop shop for a variety of services from public agencies. Calaveras County Supervisor Cliff Edson beams when talking about how the county’s public agencies and the foothill community have stepped up to assist those harmed by the Butte fire. “We wanted to quickly get people focused on their recovery,” he said.
The first phase of the Mountain Ranch recovery began even as the massive fire was approaching the Gold Rush town. Instead of following evacuation orders, the owner of the local market and his son teamed with two brothers who owned nearby ranches to lead a risky plan to save the historic section of town.
They used their bulldozers to create a dozer line encircling the main area of town. Their plan worked, and now the unscathed area, surrounded by destroyed homes, is bringing life back to Mountain Ranch.
It’s been just one month since the destructive wildfire began and the rebuilding process is already taking shape.
Two weeks into the blaze, President Barack Obama declared the Butte fire a federal disaster, and those whose homes were destroyed are eligible for federal assistance. A few days later, a FEMA bus rolled into the relief center and set up services near the Red Cross trailer. Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order suspending restrictions on homeowners choosing to place recreational vehicles or manufactured homes on their property for a three-year period.
The county, through Cal Recycle, is offering free cleanup services for residents whose homes were lost.
Supervisors Edson and Chris Wright are already looking for ways to reduce fuel loads in the community before the next massive wildfire. Edson has been pushing for the Calaveras Watershed Management Pilot Program for almost two years. Wright believes downstream water users and their utility companies need to invest in watershed management programs. I’ve already written in these pages that Congress’ inability to dedicate the funds necessary to manage our national forests responsibly is unacceptable.
The reality is that our courageous firefighters, and our federal and state coffers, cannot sustain wildfire seasons that stretch us to the limit annually. It’s time to declare a statewide emergency to reduce dangerous fuel loads in our forests and foothills. Not only will it reduce the potential for extensive destruction and hardship in rural communities, it will preserve our forests for the future.
We can’t control drought cycles, but we can reduce the dry fuels that cause these destructive wildfires to explode across our rural communities.
Marc Boyd lives in Arnold and works as an educator, businessman and freelance writer. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.