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A Sad Pilgrimage to Burned-Out Homes

Sierra Nevada: Victims of fire that destroyed or damaged 83 dwellings begin returning to area. Many find nothing but rubble.

September 30, 1997|MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DOBBINS, Calif. — Just three months after moving into a new home in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Jo Jeffers and her sister are temporarily homeless, victims of a wind-driven wildfire that whipped through this rural hamlet over the weekend.

On Monday, two days after narrowly escaping the fast-moving flames, the sisters drove back to their rental house along a narrow, twisting road only to find it destroyed.

"We got out just in time," said Jeffers, 72, who recently moved with her sister, Jenny Theobald, from Orange County. But, she added, "we lost everything."

Like scores of other fire victims who were allowed to go home Monday, the sisters began to sift through charred debris, hoping to find a memento of their past.

Unable to spot her typewriter, on which she was writing an article for a newspaper, Jeffers lamented, "There's no semblance of anything." Similar scenes of disbelief were repeated throughout the day here and in the neighboring town of Oregon House. On Saturday night, thousands of residents were forced to flee the fire, one of the worst blazes in the state this year.

On Monday, state fire officials said the blaze was more than 95% contained after having charred nearly 6,000 acres of hilly terrain about 70 miles north of Sacramento. It was expected to be fully contained by early today.

Authorities were still surveying the damage but said that 83 dwellings were destroyed or damaged, along with 65 other structures and two businesses. They reported that the cause of the fire was an electrical short in a motor home Saturday afternoon.

"Things are improving," said Karen Terrill, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Forestry, noting that winds were decreasing and humidity increasing in Northern California.

At another wildfire in Tehama County, firefighters had almost contained a blaze that consumed more than 1,000 acres, mostly timberland. Authorities said it was intentionally set.

The Dobbins-area fire was the second major disaster this year to strike Yuba County, where winter floods caused extensive damage to the county's lowlands.

Although sparsely populated, the tiny foothill towns are filling with urban refugees in search of more solitude and affordable housing.

They were very appreciative Monday of the departing fire crews. A hand-painted sign in Oregon House blared in red letters: "Thank you, firefighters."

While other weary firefighters remained behind to put out hot spots, residents tried to pick up the pieces of their lives. Many others were lucky and did not lose anything, as flames skirted their homes.

Still, they voiced sadness for their neighbors and maybe even a little guilt that fortune had smiled on them.

"I guess our house is still standing, but it was a close call," said one young man as he ate breakfast at a Red Cross evacuation center at a church about 10 miles from the fire lines. Outside, the acrid smell of smoke filled the morning air.

On Saturday night, retirees Bud and Rose Kaundart fled just ahead of the flames. They carried only a couple of changes of clothes.

"Forty-five years of marriage down the tubes," Bud Kaundart, 66, said as he surveyed the twisted and melted wreckage of his mobile home. "We're all sick."

Meanwhile, his wife combed through the debris to find her mother's jewelry, including a gold ring.

They had just arrived back home Monday after waiting with thousands of others until authorities reopened roads at 10 a.m. On their way home, people drove past blackened countryside with their cars packed with clothes, children and pets. Others just had themselves and, if they were lucky, a favorite picture.

As neighbors hugged one another, teams of crisis counselors patrolled the narrow lanes around Dobbins to lend a sympathetic ear. One counselor said victims are in shock when they find their homes destroyed. "They don't know where they are going to go next," he said.

Jeffers, the former Orange County resident and retired publishing company official, said she expects to move in with her daughter until her landlord can rebuild her home.

On Saturday, Jeffers said she and her sister were waiting for sheriff's deputies to arrive when they spotted an advancing reddish glow. They then scrambled to leave their home.

Jeffers sighed Monday as she looked at the remains of her blackened garden and cried out "poor thing" on seeing a favorite yucca plant.

Her landlords, Jeanette and Bill Hone, said they, too, lost their nearby home in the fire.

"We've got insurance," Jeanette Hone said, "but it doesn't replace things your kids made for you."

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