Fire is a terrifying thing as intense flames burn up and completely destroy precious belongings.
But it can also be refining. Depending on what something is made of, the flames will leave their mark, while purifying, yet not destroying it.
A drive along West Whitlock Road reveals the charred remains from last summer's Telegraph Fire. The gray skies and blustery winds of last weekend's winter storm only added to the bleakness. Some properties still show signs of the aftermath with downed trees scattered haphazardly on the frozen ground, but others show signs of activity as folks begin the process of rebuilding. Trusses and pipes lay ready for new construction at the end of a driveway; travel trailers provide shelter for some of the fire victims, where bare foundations sit empty; on some lots a new mobile home has been moved in to replace a home that was lost. Potato Hill has since been dubbed "Baked Potato Hill" by Whitlock residents, as some areas still resemble a moon-scape: black and gray, with hardly any green.
"It was quite a contrast," said Jon Currie about the landscape that morning. "The black pine stumps, covered with white frost ..." His voice trailed off as he shook his head slowly. "It's colder up here now without the trees. Poor animals -- my horse used to stand underneath them for shelter, but now he can't. He was covered with frost, too."
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Currie's days are filled with work. Some of the work is typical for a man who thinks this part of California is the most beautiful spot in the world. But too much work yet remains from the fire's devastation: clearing downed trees, re-building fences, and putting up another one-room cabin. "I got a good deal on the windows," he said. "They aren't exactly the right size, but they'll do."
The small wood stove warmed the place nicely while snow flurries whipped wildly through the air.
How does this lone mountain man plan to spend Christmas? "It's the one day when I can sleep, and not feel guilty," he grinned. A good rest is much-deserved after what he's been through.
Down the road the Orval Arebalo's property has been mostly cleared of the fire's debris. A couple piles of scrap metal will sit there until prices go back up. Arebalo and his family have lived on Whitlock Road since 1972. "Our sons, Matthew, Curtis and Paul are here a lot helping us clean up the mess, and on Sundays the grandkids come to help, too," Arebalo says.
The Arebalo family is not unfamiliar with tragedy. "In 1971, I lost my leg," Arebalo said, "and eight years later we lost our daughter."
A new mobile home has recently replaced the former home, and this family is busy with the work of hooking up utilities, moving in and getting ready for holidays.
"We find out what's really important in the difficult times," says Arebalo. "My wife and I are still married, and nobody lost their lives. It'll never be the same, and we can't replace our Ponderosa pines, but you live through the tragedies, and pick up and go on."
Lester Bridges, owner of the NAPA Auto Parts store in Mariposa, is a member of the Mariposa County Chamber of Commerce, and on the board of directors with the Telegraph Fire Victims Relief Fund. "We're still collecting money," he says. "And one hundred percent of the money that comes in goes to the victims who contacted us." Thousands of dollars have been distributed so far.
Some victims still battle the odds to get things in place so they can move back home. New power poles must be purchased and put into place, and cement "aprons" connecting a dirt driveway to the main road must be poured. Construction codes have changed in the past thirty years, and costs have increased. The work seems endless, but for the most part, residents are in good spirits.
"In a word, we're blessed," said Linda Hakanson who also lives in the area. "It's different now, but God is good." Steve and Linda's home was lost, but Steve's mom's home on the same property was not, and this is where their family now lives. His mom passed away last spring.
"It's very emotional -- so many changes this year," Steve says.
Linda agrees. "This will be our first Christmas without grandma."
Most of the cleanup work is done, and the Hakansons are grateful for the many people who were right there to help them get through those first few weeks of sorting through the rubble and black dust.
Linda used to call herself the "Queen of Clutter."
"The things I had may have seemed like junk to somebody else, but they had sentimental value, because of the people who gave them to me," she said.
Trials are not new to this family, either, as they care for ailing relatives. "Things aren't nearly as important as people. Losing our home has reminded us of that. We still have so much to be thankful for."
How will they celebrate the holidays this year?
Linda explained, "We still have our traditions. At Thanksgiving we didn't have the dishes that had been in the family for years, but we had beautiful dishes that someone gave us. And the next day we put up two Christmas trees with ornaments that had also been given to us."
Other traditions continue: handcrafting and painting their own ornaments, baking favorite holiday breads, and serving hot tea and cocoa in Linda's prettiest teapots. Friends who knew of her teapot collection have given her new ones to start her collection again.
"We used to gather around the piano to play Christmas carols and sing, and we won't be able to do that this year," Linda said. "And we don't have the good old movies we enjoyed watching, but we can get those again someday."
One thing that amazes Linda is how nine pieces of her Royal Albert Old Country Roses china managed to survive. "The colors are a little off, but with china being so delicate, I never would have expected any of it to come through the fire! The rims on the truck melted in a puddle, yet these pieces are still intact!" She paused to dry the tears that filled her eyes. "God is so good. He still loves us; He's going to see us through. He's always blessed us, and he still is."
The Hakanson home is no longer comfortably cluttered as it once was, but it's attractive nonetheless, with friendly dogs to greet visitors and benches to sit on outside, and country blue plaid and floral furniture, white lace curtains, and a few antiques "on loan" from friends on the inside.
Looks like these folks are made of pretty tough material themselves, to have gone through the fire and come out with a smile.
Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.