Douglas Hsia, proprietor of Locke Country Store, was working in his eclectic shop when the fire broke out. Hsia stepped outside and saw the two upstairs apartments were burning.
A woman living in one of the units above his store yelled for help. Her apartment was burning, and Locke, with its worn wooden buildings, is arguably one of the most combustible communities in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
He figured the extensive sprinkler system installed in the town a few years back would keep the fire to a minimum. But the woman upstairs, screaming for help, clearly did not share his optimism. She was on the front balcony and wanted help getting down. And quickly.
“I am glad she insisted,” Hsia said Monday. “And I’m glad I found the ladder.”
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He leaned it against the two-story structure, Hsia said, and his neighbor climbed down. Two people in the adjacent apartment, a boy and his grandfather, got down via a stairwell, he said. There were no injuries.
“The fire was really engulfing the entire upstairs,” Hsia said.
On Monday, the apartment units above Hsia’s six-month-old country store were little more than blackened ruins. His store had extreme water damage, authorities said. And Hsia said his home at the back of the building was a shambles. The roof had caved in.
Fire is a constant threat in Locke, the century-old community of close-packed wooden buildings that stretch along three or four blocks in the Delta. The entire community, settled by Chinese laborers in 1915, is a National Historic Landmark.
Deputy Chief Mark van Loben Sels of the Walnut Grove Fire District, Battalion 95, noted that all structures in Locke are equipped with exterior sprinklers. The system worked well in the fire, he said, and helped contain the blaze to one building. However, to keep the integrity of the landmark, sprinklers are not placed inside the buildings, he said.
Thomas Herzog was helping a customer in another nearby shop, Strange Cargo, when the fire erupted.
“I heard the fire whistle, then I heard a fire truck,” Herzog said. “It sounded like it stopped right here. Then all of a sudden I smelled smoke. Oh, my gosh. I got up right away, and said, ‘I gotta go out.’ ”
“I got 10,000 books for sale in this store,” Herzog said. As the fire trucks began to clear the street and stretch out their hoses, he said he doubted they could quell the blaze before flames reached his store, which is run by Lisa Kirk. When smoke started billowing from the balcony next door, he called his wife. “I can’t see them putting the fire out,” he recalled telling her.
But firefighters had prepared for a quick response. Van Loben Sels said that along with the Walnut Grove battalion, calls for backup went to fire crews in Courtland, Elk Grove and Sacramento. The fire was contained in about 45 minutes, he said.
Fire officials had not yet determined a cause of the fire. None of the adult residents whose apartments burned could be reached for interviews Monday.
Hsia, 58, said that despite his losses, they were not as great as those of the upstairs apartment occupants, who lost everything.
“Compared to what my neighbor lost, I’ve been a very lucky guy,” he said.
Hsia said he immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, obtained his citizenship, returned to Hong Kong for a time, then moved back to California in 2014. He said he moved into the housing unit at the back of the shop about a year ago and spent six months preparing for the opening of Locke Country Store.
His shop, he said, was set up as an “East meets West” combination of Chinese and Wild West merchandise. He was unsure Monday when or if he would reopen.
The Chinese have a saying, he said. “ ‘For every situation of danger, there is an opportunity.’ So I am looking for the opportunity.”
Locke is about 20 miles south of the state capital along the Sacramento River. The Chinese immigrants who founded it had been displaced by a fire in Walnut Grove. They persuaded rancher George Locke to lease them land to build their town. California law at the time prohibited Chinese immigrants from owning land.
For several decades, the town prospered as an enclave of Chinese culture, known for its gambling halls, brothels and theater. Hundreds of workers lived in and around the community during harvest seasons for pears and asparagus. They also helped build the extensive levee system that protects thousands of acres of farmland in the Delta.
After World War II, the town gradually fell into decline, becoming a picturesque, run-down relic with a fraction of its former population. Artists, shop owners and restaurateurs moved in during the past few decades.