Vino Ornelas of the San Diego City Fire Department reads a note on the door… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
TUOLUMNE CITY, Calif. — Life is slow and uneventful in Tuolumne, an old mining and logging town of 1,800 residents in the Sierra Nevada foothills. It's not on the road to any tourist destinations, storefronts have sat empty for years and usually the only traffic is to the casino or the grocery store on the edge of town.
"People ride their horses to the bar, that's the type of town this is," said Tree Neal, who owns a tattoo parlor. "If you sneeze, three people call up and say, 'Bless you.'"
But sleepy Tuolumne became a boomtown this week as the Rim fire came within a few miles, sending a plume of smoke into the sky and triggering school closures and voluntary evacuations. So many firefighters streamed in that they soon outnumbered residents.
The unincorporated community became the site of one of two main incident command posts for one of the largest blazes in California history, a staging area for more than 2,000 firefighters who filled the town park with tents and cots and its streets with fire engines.
Though some residents fled as the smoke settled in and the sky glowed orange, many stayed to serve the encampment, offering free haircuts, massages and barbecued meals. A conflagration that has dampened tourism leading up to Labor Day weekend in some communities near Yosemite National Park did just the opposite in Tuolumne. What could have been bad news brought new life to the struggling town.
Firefighting operations had Revive Cafe, one of the few restaurants in town, operating extended hours, serving house-roasted coffee and chorizo burritos to tired, radio-toting firefighters on break from 12- or 24-hour shifts.
"The whole town gathered to serve the gift of hospitality," said cafe owner Mary Delgado. The blaze, she said, inspired a new menu item, the Rim fire smoothie, made with blueberries and spinach to replenish weary firefighters craving nutrients.
"These guys come in exhausted, with smoke all over their faces," said Delgado, who opened the cafe in a long-vacant storefront last year to bring a sorely needed gathering place to the town. "To me it was a joy just to offer them a hot plate of food and a good cup of coffee."
As she manned the cafe, Delgado worried about her home in the nearby town of Twain Harte, but as with many locals here, she was reassured it would be protected by the small village of firefighters that sprang up down the street. And she couldn't be happier with the boost in business they were bringing.
The town's park, with an inviting lawn and a gazebo, became like a living room for emergency responders. Firefighters between shifts set up tents, exercised, kicked off their boots and rolled out sleeping bags and cots for some midday shut-eye.
The town's tattoo parlor, next to the Logger bar, got in the spirit of hospitality, too. Tree Neal and Lisa Southern, the couple who own West Side Ink, renamed it the Rim Fire Lounge and re-purposed it as a refuge for firefighters.
"Otherwise we'd be sitting at home watching the mountain burn," Southern said. "We tried to make it a home away from home."
Its roomy interior of couches and pool tables became an air-conditioned escape for emergency responders to decompress, charge their cellphones, serve themselves from a table full of fresh fruit and snacks and be treated to massages. Hairstylists stood by offering free haircuts. Some firefighters wanted commemorative Rim fire tattoos, Neal said, but they told them to come back after the blaze was out.
Many in the old mining town west of Yosemite, which dates to the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th century, said it needed a boost.
Its streets are lined with stately old churches, brightly painted frontier-style houses with picket fences and hedges, and rows of leafy trees with their trunks painted white. But longtime residents say that since logging operations declined decades ago, the town has struggled to keep a handful of businesses afloat and retain jobs and residents.
So when the firefighters came to town, they got a reception like nowhere else.
"It was a ghost town, but it felt like a real town again," said Christina Day, a cosmetology student who was born and raised in Tuolumne and spent the week giving fire personnel military-style buzz cuts.
By the end of the week it was hard to walk more than a few steps down the street without coming across a handwritten thank-you sign. "You kick ash," one read.
But as containment of the 330-square-mile Rim fire inched upward to 35%, evacuation advisories were lifted and firefighting operations in the area appeared to wane, some in Tuolumne said they were sad to see the burst of visitors go.
"It brought us to life," said Rose Rhodes, a 55-year-old special education teaching assistant. When she was a teenager, she and her parents moved from Modesto to Tuolumne for the slower pace of life. This week, she said, "all you could hear were the firetrucks, helicopters and planes. To have all these outsiders here pulled us all together."
At Revive Cafe, Delgado placed a guest book next to the cash register and tip jar. "This is the beginning of a new era," reads the inscription. Before long, the leather-bound volume filled up with praise from firefighters visiting from hundreds of miles away.
"Despite being completely overrun by firetrucks, the patience and heart of this town has been humbling," wrote one firefighter from Ventura County. "We really are just guys doing our jobs … Just blessed to do it in Tuolumne."