Facing the Butte Fire’s Terrible Toll

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman December 15, 2015 13:51
Richard and Mary Anderson with their dog, Cali, on a visit tot heir charred homesite four weeks after the Butte Fire. The September blaze, which ravaged more than 70,000 acres, destroyed the Andersons' home and more than 500 others in Calaveras and Amador counties.

Richard and Mary Anderson with their dog, Cali, on a visit tot heir charred homesite four weeks after the Butte Fire. The September blaze, which ravaged more than 70,000 acres, destroyed the Andersons’ home and more than 500 others in Calaveras and Amador counties.

“We’ve had it with Calaveras County. We’re moving – maybe to the Oregon coast. Buy a little house, outfit it with IKEA stuff and put all this behind us.”

That was 71-year-old Richard Anderson three days after the Butte Fire incinerated the Calaveritas home he shared with his wife, Mary, for nearly four decades.

“It’s too late to start over,” continued Richard, a retired school administrator. “It took so long to build up what we had there, and now it’s all gone. We just don’t have the time to do it again. We’re getting out.”

They would weigh that decision again and again in the weeks that followed as they embarked on an emotional journey involving grief, loss, hope and an uncertain future.

“We lost more than a house,” added Mary, 69.  “We had 37 years of our lives in that home.”

37 years before the fire

The Andersons, who moved to the Mother Lode in 1972, bought the Calaveritas property six years later and hand-built their home in the early 1980s. With lumber and other materials Richard salvaged from decades-old Calaveras County houses and businesses, their new home was sturdy, overbuilt and recycled in every respect.


The Andersons’ home before the blaze.

In 1983 they moved in, and over the next two decades raised two sons and a daughter. For 25 years Mary ran a successful native-plant nursery from the property. Richard grew grapes and turned out cases of tasty zinfandel for friends. After closing the nursery, Mary installed a kiln and fired pots, which found a ready market in the Mother Lode. Lining the home’s bookshelves was Richard’s collection of vintage books on the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln, whom he portrayed at schools throughout Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.

Later Richard built a boathouse, home to his 14-foot sailboat and a golden 1950 Hudson Commodore sedan that he – much to Mary’s chagrin – wanted to restore. A videographer, film buff, raconteur and writer (see his essay, page 76), Richard stocked the boathouse with memorabilia from his rich and varied life. Also there: albums of irreplaceable family photos.

This was no cookie-cutter house transplanted from suburbia. It was a rich repository for memories, creativity and shared lives. But once the Butte Fire got through with it, you’d never know it.


Richard and Mary Anderson on a futile search for family belongings in the wake of the Butte Fire.

The day of the fire

The Andersons awoke in the pre-dawn darkness of Sun., Sept. 13. The power was out, the air was smoky and a neighbor said the fire was on the next ridge.

They pulled framed photos off their walls, threw them into the car and at 4:15 a.m. drove away. “We panicked,” admits Richard. “It turned out we had a few more hours to collect things, but we didn’t know that.”

“And we never really thought the flames would get our home,” says Mary, no doubt echoing the thoughts of scores of Butte Fire evacuees.

Two days later the Andersons drove to their son Carl’s Humboldt County home and monitored the fire from afar. “First we heard our house was saved, that the line had held,” says Mary. “We went out for ice cream to celebrate.”

A day later a friend called with gut-wrenching news: The fire had jumped the line, and the wind had shifted. “I’m sorry, Richard,” she said. “It’s gone.”

The trip home was horrible. “We dreaded seeing the property,” says Mary.

It was worse than either had imagined.

andersons-sorting-FN00073-editedOne month after the fire

“I’m not sure I have another trip here in me,” says Mary on an early October visit to what Richard calls “the ruins.” “It’s all tangle and horror.”

The Andersons by this time are living in a rental house in Arnold offered by a longtime friend. But it’s not home, and each visit to their Calaveritas property brings new pain.

Little has changed there since the flames tore through.

A claw-foot tub which had dropped from the second story is upside down on a mound of debris. Sheets of charred, bent roof tin are everywhere. A stove, its cast-iron walls warped, sits cockeyed at the rear. Sections of concrete foundation mark the former perimeter. Three tall stone cairns stand among the ashes.

“I built one outside the house for each of our kids,” says Mary. “That one’s Dana, there’s Carl and over there is Laura.”

She walks to where the home’s front entrance once stood, renewing a search started a few days earlier.

“I think our bronze door knocker must be down here somewhere,” says Mary, using a spade to sift through a foot of ashes, tile shards and debris.

It wasn’t.

Over at the boathouse, Richard’s Hudson is a gutted, charred hulk that is beyond the wildest dreams of restoration. His fiberglass sailboat has melted over its metal trailer. The family photos never stood a chance.

A few seemingly intact pieces of pottery are among the home’s ashes. They look fine, but Mary taps a finely thrown bowl and it rings hollow.

“They’re all compromised,” she says. “They’re no good now.”

“There’s not much left here,” adds Richard. “I found some wind chimes, and I took the claws off the tub. That’s about it.”

And the property? “We won’t live here again,” says Mary. “It’s a moonscape,” agrees Richard.

“It will never be the same.”

spoons-FN00049-editedTwo months after the fire

The excavators have come and gone, trucking off debris and potential toxins from the property. Technicians are still taking soil samples for testing.

Insurance adjusters have visited, trying to put a value on what the Andersons have lost.

“We never thought our home would burn, so we didn’t take any photos of our stuff,” says Richard. Instead, he has mentally gone through each room of the home, cataloguing scores of possessions in his mind, then searching online for valuations.

And 60 days out, the pain is still there. “When we drive past the turnoff to Calaveritas on our way to Arnold, we tear up,” says Richard.

But over the weeks, they’ve realized that there’s one thing the Butte Fire has not claimed: the network of friends they’ve built over more than 40 years in Calaveras County.

The friend who rented her Arnold cabin to the Andersons has given them an option to buy. Many more have invited them to dinner, offering sympathy, conversation and a chance to escape the fire’s consequences – if only for an hour or two.

Another, knowing Mary had lost her mahjong set in the fire, gave her a brand-new one. Offers of help, thoughtful gifts and unsolicited cash donations have all come to them.

More importantly, the response of friends and community has blunted the flight reflex that gripped Richard and Mary in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

“We could move to Astoria, Flagstaff or Kalispell, but at what cost?” says Richard. “We’ve come to realize the importance of the friends we’ve made here over 40 years. That’s something we could not re-create.”

And if they moved, he adds, “We’d probably end up coming back here a few times a year to see our friends. So what’s the point?”

cupsFN00132-editedMary’s birthday arrives in early November. She spends it on the Calaveritas property she so dreaded returning to just a month earlier.

But now the wreckage is gone, and narcissus bulbs send shoots through the black soil. She’s spreading straw and grass seed bought with those cash donations.

“Now that it’s cleared, I can come back here and not just see what the land once was,” Mary says. “Now I can imagine what it can be.

“At the beginning, there was no chance I’d want to move back here. Now there’s a chance.”

So will the Andersons build anew on their Calaveritas property? Or will they buy their rental home in Arnold?

As 2016 approaches, the answers are unclear. But this much is certain: Along with many of the hundreds of others who lost their homes in the Butte Fire, they will remain in Calaveras County.

“Almost everyone we’ve talked to is staying,” says Richard. “Their homes burned to the ground, yet they still want to be here. There must be something about this community.”

And something about those who call it home.

Much help is still needed

A host of agencies and organizations have joined forces to provide long-term help to Butte Fire survivors.

Donations may be made to the Calaveras Community Foundation’s Disaster Relief Fund, which provides grants to area nonprofits helping with recovery efforts (calaverascommunityfoundation.org).

While some fire victims had insurance, “many, many people were uninsured or underinsured,” says Nicki Stevens, part of the newly created Calaveras Recovers. The coalition’s goal is to gather volunteers and donations to provide a wide range of help, including building new homes using volunteer construction teams that have responded after other disasters nationwide (calaverasrecovers.org).

For more information on offering or seeking help related to the Butte Fire, read “Butte Fire Victims: Resources and Help” in the Resource HQ section at seniorfan.com.


This story appeared as part of our cover story, Survivors: Lessons in Resilience,” in our Winter 2014-’15 issue. Click on these links to read the other survivors’ stories:

Sandi Young, “Coming Home to a Moonscape”

Steve Klesitz, “Nine Years as a POW”

Mine Grassetti, “Escaping the Holocaust”

Ken Baldwin, “Surviving Depression”

Liz Sewell, “Medical Miracle”

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman December 15, 2015 13:51
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