Phil Alberts, 82, was preparing to go to Stockton for scheduled heart surgery when he looked out the window of his yellow wood-frame house and saw soaring flames approaching from multiple directions.
Alberts – the town historian, affectionately called “the mayor” by residents – had seen Mountain Ranch endure hardship in previous years, but never peril such as this massive firestorm hurtling toward the Calaveras County enclave.
“I thought, ‘Well, ain’t nothing to do here. Good time to leave town,’ ” he said.
Yet even as the flames bore down, Erich Sender, 76, and son Allen Sender, 47, of the local Sender’s Market and hardware store fired up their bulldozers. So did brothers and ranchers Douglas and Elliott Joses, 73 and 72. The men carved fire lines to help save the historic two-block downtown, where Alberts’ home is located, as well as several nearby houses.
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In this fiercely independent place – an aging community where many people distrust the government and prefer to take matters into their own hands – their response fit with the renowned resiliency of the old Gold Rush mining camp.
After all, people refused to leave here after the Sheep Ranch Mine and other local gold mines closed for good in 1942. They also stayed through difficult economic times after the sawmills shuttered in the 1970s, and again after a major employer, the Calaveras Cement Co., perished in 1983.
Now this unincorporated hamlet faces its greatest test – recovering from the ravenous Butte fire, which has scorched nearly 71,000 acres and destroyed 475 houses and 385 other structures. With 93 percent containment as of Friday, the inferno is the seventh most destructive in California history, and it rained its worst devastation upon this forested town of 1,800 residents after breaking out in neighboring Amador County on Sept. 9.
Meanwhile, the Valley fire, more than 90 percent contained, has consumed 76,000 acres and claimed more than 1,900 structures in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties. It ranks as the third most damaging in state history.
Calaveras County Supervisor Chris Wright said more than half of the homes destroyed in the Butte fire were in Mountain Ranch, likely more than 350 houses in a 41-square-mile area totaling 960 dwellings.
As the town’s grit is challenged more than ever, its residents reveal their determination.
Jacki Malvini, whose ridge-top home on Ponderosa Way was devoured by flames, continues to volunteer at the Mountain Ranch Youth Alliance. The local resource group, housed a block from downtown, has expanded from offering after-school kids programs to directing massive relief assistance. Fire victims are helping other fire victims as they collect and distribute donated food, clothing, bedding and camping equipment for displaced families.
At the nearby Mountain Ranch Community Club, neighbors are gathering for emergency town-hall meetings. In intense discussions, residents divide up tasks: They arrange transportation for those stranded; they compile lists of people with homes intact and rooms to lend; they share information on debris cleanup, on where you might find cellphone reception and on where to go for emotional support.
“If you’re just focused on your own needs, you’re going to suffer,” said community club President Jim Pesout, who lost his home to the fire. “Compassion is the most important word at this point.”
Fresh from aortic repair surgery, “the mayor” is back in town, trying to boost the spirits of Mountain Ranch.
Alberts bought the town’s 1856 Domenghini General Store in the early 1960s and ran it for a decade before going into real estate. On Tuesday, his first day back, he walked the town, passing the old general store – now a candle shop – and a weathered barn. He stopped in front of Sender’s Market, another center of local activity, and checked on the welfare of fire victim Robert Scott, 60.
“How you doing?” Alberts asked, adding: “And don’t lie.”
Scott recalled the incredible “roar and the rumble” of the fire that torched his house near Whiskey Slide Road and stretched miles beyond his property. He said he wondered if this was the end of Mountain Ranch – until he saw determined neighbors pulling together.
“At first, we thought it would be taken off the map,” said Scott, who said his family plans to rebuild. “Now it’s being put back on the map because of the way the community is marshaling together.”
Surveying the damage
The mayor, known as an incessant storyteller and eternal optimist, also finds himself wondering about the future of Mountain Ranch.
Alberts wrote the definitive account of the town in a 32-page booklet – “A History of Mountain Ranch El Dorado” – which portrays a place of folklore and grit. It was settled by fur trappers in 1844 and christened as El Dorado Camp by gold seekers in 1850. Legend has it, he wrote, that the town still holds buried riches of gold – the undiscovered treasure of a miner who was slain in 1851.
Alberts says he is “trying to bring the town back” after the Butte fire. Just out of the hospital, he wants to resurrect a place that “has potluck dinners and softball games and all the stuff that the big cities laugh at.” Yet he’s worried because Mountain Ranch has an aging, and vulnerable, population.
Seventy percent of residents used to work in local industries, Alberts said. Now 70 percent are retired “and some of the old-timers who lost everything, they’ll leave.”
One of those who may not come back is 44-year resident Fred Garrison, a former Calaveras County sheriff and local supervisor for the California Highway Patrol. The fire devoured his house on Murray Creek Road. “Now, I’m just a homeless ol’ buzzard,” he said. “Everything I own is gone.”
Garrison is staying close to town, shuttling between friends’ homes. He said he hasn’t decided what he wants to do, but “at 81, I’m too old to rebuild.” He is just glad his wife, Linda Garrison, who died in 2013, didn’t witness what the Butte fire wrought.
“She would be out of her mind to see this,” Garrison said. “She wouldn’t be able to handle the loss.”
Fire victim Jacki Malvini, 48, is determined to recover – because she has done it before.
Sixteen years ago, Malvini and her husband, Ken Malvini, erected a modest manufactured home on a ridge with a spectacular view of mountain woodlands. Ken’s family used to run a winery in Sheep Ranch and a tasting room in Murphys. They moved the tasting-room bar into their house and would sip cabernet “and watch the deer trot up the hill,” Jacki said.
They raised four children there, and Jacki used the setting to recover from brain cancer and surgery that removed a malignant tumor. Those surroundings are suddenly bleak, with the forest a ghoulish black and the remains of their house looking like burned, rippled cardboard.
The Malvinis’ house wasn’t insured for fire. Now staying at the home of a son, Jacki says the family soon will park a trailer on the property and start rebuilding. Ken has worked construction for 30 years, and local church volunteers are promising to help.
“It is going to all come back,” Jacki said determinedly of her town. “I haven’t heard one person say for sure, ‘I’m getting the hell out of here.’ People are going to be staying.”
State and local agencies and the Red Cross are distributing grates, shovels and respirators for residents wanting to sift through charred properties for valuables. The county is pledging to use disaster funds and to partner with state agencies in a massive effort to remove burned homes, trees and other hazards from hundreds of properties.
Meanwhile, officials are asking residents who insist on doing the work themselves to use proper safety equipment and to allow environmental officials to inspect their properties for toxins and other post-fire dangers.
“A lot of people up here don’t have a real like for the government to begin with,” said Wright, the local Calaveras supervisor. “They don’t really believe me when I say the local government and the state are going to clean up all these sites.”
A community rises
Mountain Ranch has no governing council. But residents crowded into the community club Wednesday, sitting on folding chairs and plotting their town’s recovery while engaging in cathartic conversations.
“This area can rise from the ashes and renew itself, and that’s going to depend on all of us,” Pesout, a retired Calaveras High School teacher, told the assembly.
For two hours, he helped facilitate a spirited working session as townspeople debated plans for traffic management, for bringing in a shower trailer, and for using local ball fields as temporary camping sites for displaced residents.
Pesout called for follow-up sessions, starting a week later at “the same time and same place.”
“We want everybody to stay here in the community,” Pesout added. “Anybody who needs help moving back in, we want to help. Anybody who decides they need to leave, we need to support that decision.”
Pesout, whose home was insured, said he’s determined to rebuild in or near Mountain Ranch. But he said he doesn’t want to resettle on his property, hoping instead to move to a landscape not ravaged by fire.
Patty Jarratt, a close friend of Jacki Malvini who also volunteers at the Mountain Ranch Youth Alliance, is hedging her bets on whether she will return.
Jarratt, 65, said she is grief-stricken over losing the “beautiful, beautiful” home she shared with longtime boyfriend, Terry Hession, 64. The 8.5-acre property on Eagle View Drive included her fruit and vegetable gardens and a two-story house with an elegant dining room, a gourmet kitchen adorned with copper cookware and a spacious family room with a deer derriere mounted next to the fireplace.
“It was one of the best conversation pieces ever,” Jarratt said.
The couple met with their insurance agent Wednesday. For now, Jarratt wants to hold onto the property and move out of town for a couple of years to see how her community recovers. Then she will decide whether or not to return to Mountain Ranch.
“I want to see what happens with the trees and with the neighbors,” she said. “I want to know what comes back and what doesn’t.”