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Second Fire in 5 Years Ravages Community Near Shasta Lake

Although many homes in the modest area were spared, there was little to salvage for those whose houses burned.

August 15, 2004|Gabrielle Banks and Eric Malnic | Times Staff Writers

JONES VALLEY, Calif. — This community, which lost dozens of homes in a wildfire last week, is a collection of mobile homes, trailers and manufactured homes scattered along a dusty, brush-choked canyon about three miles south of Shasta Lake.

You wouldn't confuse Jones Valley with the upscale resorts at the lake, where vacationers rent luxury houseboats for up to $2,000 a week.

The several hundred residents don't have that kind money. Most of them work at blue-collar jobs in places like Redding, about 15 miles southwest. Or they're retirees, trying to make ends meet on modest pensions and Social Security.

They like to fish and hunt, pastimes that attracted a lot of them to the area.

Local residents "meet down at the Hidden Valley market every day to talk about how good the fishing is," said Jones Valley resident Timothy Seely, 46.

The fire was 80% contained by Saturday afternoon with full containment expected by Monday evening, said Linda Galvan, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. About 10,000 acres have burned. The most troublesome spot remained around the Pit River arm of Shasta Lake, where gusty canyon winds could kick up, Galvan said.

Evacuations remained in effect for the owners of homes along three rural roads, she said.

When the raging brush fire, started by sparks from a lawnmower, raced through the most populated area of Jones Valley late Wednesday and early Thursday, residents barely had time to grab a few belongings and run. Most left their fishing and hunting gear behind.

Driven by winds and fed by brush between the buildings, the flames spread rapidly from home to home, setting off propane tanks and abandoned ammunition, said Jan Snodgrass, 45, chief of the Jones Valley Volunteer Fire Department.

"The houses were exploding, like someone had left dynamite in there," said Snodgrass, who at one point was fighting the fire three homes from her own residence. Her son, Gerald Gross, 17, was among those who fought the fire.

Although many homes were spared, others burned to the ground. All that remained was a snarl of bedsprings and melted metal siding, and broken dishes scattered among piles of ashes.

The residents who returned appeared stunned. In most cases, there was little, if anything, to salvage.

As the fire had approached, Seely fled to the lake, where he spent the night in his fishing skiff, wondering what would happen to his mobile home.

"I came back at 6 a.m.," he said. "It was gone."

Eric Prater, 43, stayed behind, and his house was spared. His neighbor, Doug Craite, 38, spent the night in his boat, which was parked in a friend's driveway. He later called Prater by cell phone to find out about his home. It had burned down.

Prater said Craite's main concern was his gun collection, which he'd left behind in a safe. The safe survived, Prater said, but it was still too hot to open.

"I think those guns are toast," Prater said.

Lance and Michelle Niebuhr, both 34, and their sons, Billy, 15, and Cody, 8, fled the flames so fast that they had to leave behind their dog, Sonic.

When they returned Friday, the house was still there, and so was Sonic. His foot pads were a little burned, but he seemed otherwise fine. Michelle Neibuhr said the dog must have saved the house.

"He's our hero," she said.

The blaze came just five years after an even bigger wildfire raged through the area, blackening more than 26,000 acres and burning 174 homes.

Scores of families escaped both fires. Someone had nailed a board to a tree with a message for the firefighters: "Thanks again."

But not everyone was so lucky.

Rebecca Beeson, 46, a Red Cross nurse, said she had talked to half a dozen families who'd lost their homes in the 1999 fire and rebuilt, only to lose them again.

"I didn't have the words to give them comfort," she said.

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