BY MELISSA HUTSELL
Amber Miller, Mountain Ranch native, said her hometown is unrecognizable.
“The land looks like a nuclear bomb went off. The trees are just sticks in many areas,” she said.
“Honestly…it’s depressing. It is hard to look at and even harder to be in.”
On Sept. 9, 2015, the Butte Fire began just East of Jackson in the Sierra foothills. In less than 24 hours, the fire engulfed more than 17,000 acres, hopping from Amador to Calaveras County. Governor Jerry Brown ordered mandatory evacuations, road closures and a state emergency as hundreds of firefighters battled the flames. With the California drought and summer heat still going, the unusually hot and dry conditions fueled the flames for another three weeks until it was officially contained on Oct. 1.
According to CAL Fire, the fire consumed a total of 70,868 acres. Two deaths were reported, 475 homes, 343 buildings and 45 structures were destroyed – leaving the residents of Calaveras and Amador County communities devastated.
In addition to supplemental state grants, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has so far allotted nearly $5 million to cover housing and other needs. Support has poured in from surrounding communities through monetary donations, blankets, food and clothing. Still, many survivors continue to live with unmet needs.
Miller’s house in Valley Springs was unscathed by the flames, but she knows many who lost their home. Immediately, she began to help by hosting evacuees and making daily trips to donation sites with her 2-year-old daughter.
“After they shut down the donation site, I got to thinking about Christmas, so I wanted to help with a gift drive.” The Butte Fire Family Christmas gathered approximately 1,000 gifts, and served hot coco, coffee, hotdogs, nachos and baked goods to more than 75 families who lost their homes.
Community support like this brings survivors a sense of normality, said Miller.
“I know that many in the area are just trying to make ends meet (money wise) and it gives them a chance to have either the gifts we distributed or the much-needed supplies at the donation sites.
“This is a small, close-knit town, we are more of a family then neighbors.”
As ash, debris and loss lie in the wake of the Butte Fire, many residents and local organizations are working together to begin the process of rebuilding. Volunteer efforts such as Calaveras Recovers are spearheading missions to rebuild homes, while individuals like John Slot, owner of John Slot Photography, are pulling their own resources.
Slot raised $14,342 for the Calaveras Community Foundation’s Butte Fire Relief Fund through the sales of his Butte Fire Commemorative 2016 Calendar. The Butte Fire started just nine miles from Slot’s home, he said. As a freelance photographer based in Valley Springs, he began to take photos of the fire – sometimes coming within feet of the flames. His social media following exploded and the calendars sold out.
Slot is one of many residents and business owners committed to helping the community recover. Others continue to open their homes, organize replanting efforts, clear debris and collect donation items.
Katie Clark’s childhood home was burned in the Butte Fire. Though she now lives in Sacramento, she shares the same goal of helping her community move forward. For her birthday in April this year, she invites the community to help her plant wildflowers – an effort to bring life back into the scenery.
“Those who have to go back to their empty land, and to those whose homes stood while no one else is around them now – it is nothing fun to look at,” she said. “If we can add some brightness and color, if even for a season, and only in a handful of places, it is still completely worth it.”
For More Information:
To stay updated with Clark’s Wildflower Planting Event on April 2 and other projects organized by the community, visit Mountain Ranch Needs and Volunteers at Facebook.com
For more information on Calaveras Recovers, visit: