Friday morning in Loma Rica, Brian Lewis walked an insurance adjuster from Indiana through the ashes of his farmhouse, destroyed less than two weeks ago in the Cascade Fire that hopscotched through this rural area in Yuba County.
The home, which belonged to his parents, had been unoccupied for a while but provided “a lot of memories here with our children and grandchildren,” he said, looking out over nothing but blackened trees and foot-deep debris.
He plans on rebuilding, as do many other people in this agrarian tract north of Marysville. Loma Rica has one main thoroughfare – Loma Rica Road – and a couple hundred scattered houses, farms and ranches, spread far enough apart that it may seem locals think the best neighbors are the ones you can’t see.
But in recent days, with about 187 of those places annihilated, according to Cal Fire, the blurry ties of camaraderie have grown more visible as the community fights for a sense of normalcy and recovery after days of havoc.
“We don’t do a lot of events and things like that,” said Heather Leidiger, manager of the town’s Gold Eagle Market. “But we’re a tight community, loosely knit.”
Just down the road from Lewis’ land is a de facto town center where the Gold Eagle and a new Dollar General share one side of the road, across the street from the Loma Rica Community church, a blue structure with a tan metal hangar nearby that is now serving as a donation center.
The Dollar General, which opened this fall, was the biggest news locally before the fire. Many residents didn’t want it, fearing it was the start of corporations moving in. Dollar General already has multiple locations in nearby Oroville and Marysville — considered urban areas by Loma Rica standards. Signs still dot the back roads from an unsuccessful campaign to keep the store out and keep Loma Rica “rural.”
But when fire came nearly to the Dollar General’s door, firefighters used its metal water tower – which the store is required to have by county ordinance – to fill trucks.
“That tank fed the hydrants,” said Trisha Schaeffer, who lives nearby. “So if they hadn’t been there ....”
Schaeffer, her parents and her daughter, all Jehovah’s Witnesses, set up in their usual Friday morning spot under the awning of the Gold Eagle to pass out the church’s latest magazine about surviving disasters, one little step in getting back to their regular lives. The Gold Eagle was doing good business, said clerk Zavana Androus, from people still without power buying meals from the deli and groceries for guests who had driven in to aid relatives.
“A lot of people from out of town are coming to help their families,” said Androus.
But if residents of Loma Rica share anything in common, it’s a sense of self-reliance.
When a county-run shuttle arrived to take people down to the one-stop shop for emergency services in Marysville, no one got on board. Shuttle driver Don Nelson said Friday morning in the runs he’s made since Wednesday, he hasn’t had a single taker. He thinks it’s maybe just how this community is – self-sufficient and insular.
“I was surprised the first day I came up here,” he said. “I thought I was going to get 30 people (but) they tend to help each other out up here.”
He thinks those who lost cars and trucks may be hitching rides with neighbors who still have transportation.
Inside the Gold Eagle and its attached mini-mart, which doubles as the post office, Angela Roubal said the store and church became a “community center” even more than usual when the fire hit.
“It was crazy,” she said. “This was like the command center.”
That information exchange was still going on Friday as customers came in to pay for gas and pick up supplies. Trees and wind were major topics.
Rain hit Loma Rica Thursday night, a development that spread as much anxiety as relief. It came with heavy winds, like when the fire came through, and people were disturbed simply by the reminder. Others worried it would take down damaged trees. It knocked out some power, another unwelcome similarity to the night of the fire.
“I was scared of that rain and wind,” said Roubal.
Customer Kyle Kobbold agreed – he’d chainsawed 25 damaged trees on his property the day before to keep them from falling on their own. Roubal said her husband had “stuck his head” inside one of their trees and thought all its roots were gone. That made her nervous. Out of the 12 women who work at Golden Eagle, her home was the only one damaged. The fire destroyed an attached greenhouse but only scorched the main house.
She spent the first few days sleeping at the church across the street, in part to manage the copious donations that kept coming in. She finally burned out.
“By Saturday, I was emotional,” she said. “I just started breaking down mentally and physically. I was tired.”
That surge of tragedy-induced energy followed by a hard comedown wasn’t unique to Roubal. More than one resident here spent the days after the fire in an all-out push to get something, anything, done.
Down in Marysville at the county’s emergency assistance center, Loma Rica resident Stephanie Ketchum said she’d been “up and down and up and down.”
“Right after it happened, and especially because of the kids, you have to buck up,” said the mother of two. “You just get on an adrenaline high until you get stuff done and then your crashing day comes.”
She and 12 other family members had lost a total of three homes.
They – along with a dozen house pets – were staying at a local hotel. They’re hoping to get four trailers together and move back to the property as soon as possible and were working their way through stations at the county center getting identification, planning department advice and other aid.
Dozens of key agencies, including the Department of Motor Vehicles, County Clerk and Internal Revenue Service, had set up in two rooms to provide easy access to services. About 600 people had come through in the three days it was open, said Grace Mull, Yuba deputy county administrator. She had been evacuated from her Browns Valley home south of Loma Rica but focused on getting this center up and functioning almost overnight.
“I’ve had a little bit of survivor’s guilt,” Mull said.
Despite the county aid, Ketchum and others see a long road ahead before life gets back to routine. For now, the hits keep coming in unexpected ways.
Her 4-year-old daughter, Mattanie Hoff, was scrolling through photos on her mom’s phone to pass the time. She came across a picture of their Christmas “Elf on the Shelf” dolls, a pair they’d named Rookie and Snowflake.
Pretty soon, Mattanie and her brother, Blaze, 8, would expect them to return from the North Pole, a holiday tradition.
“Oh, crap,” Ketchum said. “That was in the house.”