More Than Just Wine Country Is Burning In California
Published October 15th, 2017
REDWOOD VALLEY, Calif. (AP) — Mendocino County is 70 miles north of California's fabled wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties, now under siege from wildfires. But it's a world away in mood, attitude and, especially, prominence.
That helps explain why some residents feel ignored as they deal with their own catastrophic wildfires.
"We have been hit just as hard as anyone," said Sonya Campbell, who lost her house to the fires. "I don't get why we aren't getting any attention."
On Saturday, there was a mixture of anger and resignation in McCarty's Bar here to Mendocino County's fire taking a publicity backseat to the others.
Thousands were evacuated and hundreds lost their homes. Eight have died here, including 14-year-old Kai Shepherd, whose parents and sister suffered severe burns.
The county is only about an hour's drive north of Santa Rosa, where thousands of homes have been destroyed. But it is dramatically different.
Santa Rosa is home to 175,000 residents and hosts numerous hotels and vacation rentals catering to tourists.
The population of Mendocino County is about half that, and its popular tourist spots are on the coast. Few visit the inland hamlets east of U.S. Highway 101 where the fire hit the hardest.
Among the most ravaged communities is Redwood Valley, a tight-knit town of retirees, urban refugees and locals nestled along the Russian River. It is home to multiple-acre lots of horse owners, goat farmers and folks seeking the quiet life. Many identify as "redneck hippies."
The state fire station anchors the civic center, where a grocery store, gas station and bar are also located. The two bars in the community are where many residents get their news: from the television or from word-of-mouth.
There is some disappointment that Sonoma and Napa counties have received the lion's share of attention.
"I'm so tired of hearing about the wineries," said James Younger, who fled his Redwood Valley home Monday morning and watched the television coverage of Northern California's fires at McCarty's. "There was a sense that no one cared about us. But that's OK. We're self-reliant."
Chuck Bartelson lost his home of 20 years. He sat at the bar at McCarty's and was sanguine.
"What can you do?" he asked rhetorically. He said he wasn't bothered by the attention Sonoma and Napa counties were receiving.
"I realize that there was devastation there, too," he said.
In all, some 7,000 residents in Mendocino County and nearby Lake County have been evacuated.
The Mendocino County Sheriff's Office warned that the death toll may climb as they search dozens of homes cool enough to approach.
Meanwhile, McCarty's continued to serve as a clearinghouse of information Saturday, and was acting as a de facto evacuation shelter. Residents were picking up supplies that had been dropped there.
Bartender Crystal Maples opened the bar Monday at about 2:30 a.m. after a harrowing escape from the fire that forced her to leave her car, crawl under downed power lines and hitch a ride in the back of a pickup with a random motorist who she asked to drop her off at work.
Maples said she turned on the lights and television, put on coffee and opened the doors. Soon, the place was overflowing with desperate evacuees. Horse owners tied up their animals in the beer garden. Nobody slept that first night and everyone was glued to the television.
Come Monday, Maples sent her daughter to buy air mattresses, and firefighters began bringing supplies, which remain stacked nearly to the ceiling on the bar's dance floor. Dozens slept under pool tables, on the dance floor and outside in their cars and recreational vehicles.
By Saturday, the horses had left McCarty's beer garden. Most who slept there this week have found other accommodations — or were allowed to return to their homes.
"We are resilient here," said Karen McCarty, owner of McCarty's. "We'll get through. We always do."