In a region banking on tourism to keep it from economic collapse, one of its great natural attractions — the forest — now seems as toxic as any polluted river.
For all the changes of the last decade, Fort Bragg residents were still struggling to absorb the loss of Jere Melo, whose death hit so much closer to home than the usual drug shootout.
"Right now, what people feel isn't fear; it's sadness," said Rich Pyorre, an insurance agent.
The town's annual Paul Bunyan Days celebration, held over Labor Day weekend, is honoring Melo this year. A memorial with his photo stood in the lobby of City Hall. Store windows displayed wanted posters with Bassler's photo.
Next Saturday, a memorial for Melo will be held at the high school stadium. Much of Fort Bragg, population 7,000, is expected to turn out. Meanwhile, the manhunt for his alleged killer continued through the forests that have sustained the town for years.
Even if he is found, no one expects the mountains to be quite the same again.
For decades, timberland caretakers like Melo have been unarmed retired foresters, driving around in trucks to make sure no one was collecting firewood or camping in private woodlands. It was a simple job — a long-accepted part of the forest landscape — that kept many men active well into retirement.
"Their focus is going to change; they've got to be real cops," said Briley, Mendocino's hazmat chief. "It used to be they'd have a beer with [campers and trespassers] and send them on their way. Those days are obviously over."