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Mariposa County fires teach that in rugged territory, you learn to cope

The recent Telegraph fire wasn't out yet, but the T-shirts — of the usual "I survived the (your disaster here)" genre — were.

"You saw (vendor) tents all along (Highway 140)," said Tom Phillips, a longtime Mariposa resident and candidate for county supervisor.

In Mariposa, where tourism is the local economy's spinal cord, they find ways to turn disaster into dimes and dollars. The community is getting yet another chance to test its resolve now that the firefighters are gone after extinguishing flames that scorched 53 square miles and destroyed 30 homes.

By virtue of its geography, the community of roughly 1,500 residents has plenty of experience in rebounding from disasters. It's nestled in a brushy, hilly canyon just west of the brushier, steeper Merced River canyon that has been so generous and, at times, so devilishly punishing to this town on the road to Yosemite National Park.

Fires hit Mariposa hard during the Gold Rush days and again in the 1930s. The town survived.

The mining and timber industries died out, and the town survived.

Tourism became the community's economic lifeline, with travelers leaving large chunks of change at Mariposa's motels, restaurants, shops and gas stations on their way to Yosemite.

Tourism, however, often is at nature's mercy and sometimes nature isn't particularly merciful.

Floods, rock slides, flames, a high-profile murder case and political maneuvering all have staggered Mariposa, though none could deliver the knockout blow.

Why? Resilience. Pure resilience.

"People up here are self-sufficient," Phillips said. "When you live in Mariposa, you need to be. Up here, the electricity will go out at times, and you learn to deal with it. We're kind of an isolated community even though we have the main thoroughfare to Yosemite. We pull together when things happen."

When disaster strikes, Mariposa residents brace for the worst and look inward.

"You think, 'What else can happen to keep the tourists out?' " longtime Mariposa resident Eleanor Keunig said. "But there's a real sense of community up here. You get through it."

The Telegraph fire offered a prime example. Mariposa residents who volunteered to work at the evacuation shelter outnumbered the evacuees. Greg and Diane Fritz, owners of the Happy Burger diner in town, opened their home to 11 relatives displaced by the fire.

"Don't forget all of their cats and dogs, too," Greg Fritz said of the menagerie in their three-bedroom home. "It (was) a bit crowded."

All of their relatives were able to return to their homes, animals in tow.

Officials closed Highway 140 and some entrances to Yosemite at times during the fire. The highway closures and traffic delays happened during daylight hours so that helicopters could swoop down into the narrow canyon to scoop water from the river to dump on the fire. Still, thanks to some erroneous news reports, tourists stayed away, believing the state had closed 140 entirely.

Because Mariposa recouped some of its losses by hosting firefighters who filled the motel rooms and restaurants, the fire wasn't nearly as devastating to the local economy as was the flooding in January 1997. That's when the Merced River washed out a chunk of Highway 140. The state Department of Transportation soon reopened the road, closing it from time to time during construction. Then, too, various news agencies frequently and mistakenly reported 140 had shut down entirely, and tourists basically avoided Mariposa as they headed to Yosemite.

The economic impact from that one? The county's annual average unemployment rate rose from 8 percent in 1996 — the year before the flood — to 21.2 percent in 1997. By the time all of the road repairs were completed in 2000, Mariposa's jobless rate had returned to normal even though the murders of three Yosemite sightseers in 1999 probably scared a few tourists away as well, some locals say.

Within that same time frame, Mariposa took another economic hit because the state banned tour buses longer than 40 feet on Highways 140 and 120. Highway 41 scored because it could handle the traffic, while business owners along 120 and 140 claimed dirty politics.

The restriction ultimately was lifted, but only Highway 120 benefited initially. By that time, the Ferguson rock slide had closed 140 again. The state built two temporary bridges, but no vehicle longer than 28 feet could cross them because of the narrowness of the canyons and the way the bridges were installed.

Now the big buses can go through Mariposa again. On July 4, Gov. Schwarzenegger dedicated a new set of temporary bridges that allow bigger vehicles.

Even then, the town's goofy luck continued. Mariposa officials postponed the town's Fourth of July fireworks celebration until July 26 because of the high fire danger. But by the time the 26th rolled around, the Telegraph fire was well under way, and the fairgrounds — where the show would have been — became a staging area for the firefighters. They're still waiting for the fireworks. January, perhaps?

A glitch? Yes. Defeating? By no means.

"We've bounced back from any number of drastic curtailments," said Paul Hall, vice president of the Mariposa Chamber of Commerce.

Once again, Mariposa is remaking itself. Certainly, the town always wants its share of the Yosemite-bound bounty. But it's also a town with a growing population of retirees who shop and spend locally which, residents say, stabilizes their economy. Mariposa also is home to Tavis Corp. and CKC Laboratories, two high-tech companies that contract with the federal government and employ more than 100 people between them.

Finally, Mariposa is marketing its history to make the town itself a tourist destination and not merely a pit stop.

"We've adopted a new attitude," Hall said. "Being a 'gateway community' (to Yosemite) implies you drive through. We want you to visit Yosemite, but we'd also like to have you stay in Mariposa. You do that by offering things to do while they're here."

County residents are encouraged to maintain their Gold Rush-era homes in their rustic Gold Rush-era styles. In return, they can benefit from the Mills Act, which allows local governments to grant property tax breaks to those who restore and maintain historic buildings.

The Mariposa Museum and History Center is outstanding, and the town is home to the state's mining and mineral museum as well. The courthouse, built in 1854, is the oldest in the West in terms of continuous service.

Ultimately, Mariposa residents have made their town a bit more disaster-resistant. They know the river will flood again. They know a rock slide could bury Highway 140 again somewhere in the Merced River canyon. And they know that the next time fire scorches the canyon and disrupts their lives, they can bounce back.

They've got the T-shirts to prove it.