OAKHURST – Friday evening at Miller’s landing was a testament to the way the community pulls together, as hundreds of people gathered to share and to support their neighbors after the disaster of the Courtney Fire.
Saturday morning was when the dirty work really got underway in the burn area along Road 426, and once again, the community was there.
As the day began, help and hardware began arriving at the devastated neighborhood of Bass Lake Heights.
Big Oak Septic was early on the scene, delivering portable toilets and washing stations for those working, and Emadco dumpsters were stationed around the area.
True Value Hardware brought a truck and was set up at the home of the Lavoies, the big yellow house on the corner of Road 426 and Pine Drive.
True Value owner Alan Bryant, a resident of Balsam Drive whose home survived, worked with his brother Paul to determine what people would be needing and make sure it was available.
“We ordered as many shovels, rakes, gloves and trash bags as we could get from True Value,” said Bryant, who says the corporate office was a bit stunned by their huge request and short time frame, but made a monstrous effort getting a semi-load of supplies delivered by Thursday morning. They also brought storage totes, buckets and bottled water.
Bryant says he had just returned from church last Sunday, and was all set with tailgating supplies, a stocked fridge and his remote, ready to enjoy an afternoon of football. He had just hit “play” on his recorded game when he became aware of the commotion in the neighborhood and hurried out to the edge of the hill, only to see the fire racing toward him.
“Seems we’ve had to be prepared to evacuate every week for the last three weeks,” he said. “It’s created a heightened awareness when these things continue to hit so close to home.”
After learning of the devastation in his neighborhood, Alan says he and Paul were determined to do everything they could to help their neighbors who were not as fortunate.
The Bryants provided about $10,000 worth of products out of their own pockets, which they began handing out at the Red Cross evacuation center at the Oakhurst Community Center on Thursday morning.
“It was the least we could do for this grief-stricken community,” said Bryant, who also had his employees at H&L Lumber build sifting boxes so those who lost their homes could search for anything remaining in the ashes and rubble.
Krissy Franke, another resident of Balsam Drive whose home was spared, wanted to do all she could to help people during the cleanup process.
“I ran around like a mad woman, knowing these folks working would be hungry,” says Franke. She called around town and got donations of pizza from everyone in town who has pizza. DiCicco’s, Pizza Factory, Round Table, South Gate Brewery, Sugar Pine Pizza and Me ‘n Eds all provided lunch for those working. Even Vons cooked up pizzas and sent them up the hill.
Franke says that when she and other residents returned to their homes, they was amazed by the offers of help from the firefighters who were still their patrolling and protecting the structures that remained.
“They would say, ‘How can we help? Do you need water? How about some Gatorade? Do you need help lifting that?’ And I thought, wow, they had worked their tails off! We should be helping them!”
Steve and Kim Santos, whose home was skirted by the fire on Skyline Drive, also set up a relief station at their home, complete with burgers and hot dogs, portable toilets and wash stations. They also loaded food and snacks into little red wagons and walked up and down the streets offering drinks and snacks to those toiling in the heat.
Across the road from the big yellow house, a family sifted through the ashes of their home, delighted to find that their nativity scene had survived among the rubble and that the baby Jesus wasn’t even scorched.
Vicki Lura had been renting the house and mulling over the idea of buying it before she lost everything last Sunday. But even with the life-altering blow this fire has dealt her, she sees this tragedy as an opportunity.
“We get so caught up in our own lives. We’re so busy,” she said, taking the time to share her story as she paused for a quick bite of pizza with family members.
Vicki had been in Pollock Pines, where another wildfire still rages, when she got word of the Courtney Fire. The boxes she had prepared for evacuation during previous fires still sat in her house, ready to go, and now were lost to the flames.
“Nature’s fury takes it’s course,” she said. “The disaster is done. Now is the opportunity for people to open their hearts and give. It’s part of our nature, so we focus on the good and provide love and support.”
Vicki’s son and daughter-in-law were there to help load the burnt carcasses of appliances into trailers, and sift through the ashes, delighting in each discovery of something treasured that survived.
Though all her worldly goods are lost, Vicki knows that the important things remain, including her precious grandson, and she is focused on putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward.