As fires rage statewide, a burned out California mining town looks to rebuild

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KESWICK, CALIF. – Alan Crabtree kicked aside pieces of scrap metal Wednesday scattered next to what once was the foundation of his Keswick home, one of more than 1,000 structures destroyed by the deadly Carr Fire. Underneath the metal, he found what he was looking for in a four-inch layer of ash.

“There’s the water-turner-off thingy,” he said, grabbing the forked metal stick and heading toward the water main.

Overnight Tuesday, crews had restored water to the tiny Keswick community about five miles west of Redding, and now water was sluicing down his lawn into what used to be his driveway. Kneeling, he opened the concrete water main lid with his gloved hands, found the control and wrenched it shut as his dogs, Bubba and Koda, lapped up water near the hose bib in front of the house.

Up and down roads in this old mining town of 451 residents, the quiet calm of everyday life has been razed. The buzz of chain saws fills the smoky air as utility crews remove hazardous trees in an effort to start re-stringing utility lines. Traffic control workers and law enforcement patrol the streets while residents return to denuded land once thick with pine and oak trees and chock with hearty Manzanita.

All but two homes in Keswick burned down early on July 26 as the Carr Fire raced east from Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. The firestorm, which was 48 percent contained and had torched more than 177,000 acres as of Thursday, would blast through Keswick and surrounding rural communities to the west of the Redding city limits that Thursday morning before barreling into town, jumping the Sacramento River and destroying residential neighborhoods many thought untouchable by a wildfire.

As the residents of Keswick are returning to destroyed homes, many across the state are still wondering if their homes are next. The Carr Fire is one of more than a dozen blazes across the state that continue to endanger the lives of thousands, including hundreds of firefighters and first responders working around the clock.

One, the Mendocino Complex Fire in Northern California, is the largest wildfire in California history. Yosemite National Park has been closed “indefinitely” because of smoke from another fire.

The causes of some of the wildfires remain under investigation. But late Tuesday, a 51-year-old man was arrested and charged with starting the Holy Fire in Southern California, causing nearly 10,000 acres to rage with fire and more than 20,000 people to be placed under evacuation orders near Cleveland National Forest.

Like Crabtree, many evacuated only with what they could stuff in their vehicles. Some had hours to evacuate, while others in the forested communities west of Redding had mere minutes to grab and go.

Crabtree, a retired hospital stationary engineer had already planned on leaving home the morning of July 26 for a golf tournament in remote Modoc County. When fire personnel came by at 3 a.m. telling him to prepare to leave imminently, Crabtree said he threw a few extra things into his camper.

“When I grabbed stuff, I honestly believed I’d be coming back to my house,” he said. “I grabbed as many guns as I could fit under the camper bed, some of my great-grandmother’s quilts, some pictures, the two dogs, dog food and headed out.”

But when the 40-year Keswick resident returned to his two-parcel homestead, he began looking for anything to salvage on his two acres strewn with outbuildings, cars, automobile engines and other assorted machinery.

“I wasn’t in shock because I’d seen the pictures, but there were things that were just melted and my two-story house was nothing but fine ash,” he said. “As you can see, I was over-encumbered. Most of this doesn’t mean much, but I lost a picture of my great-grandfather and that makes me sad.”

For now, Crabtree is staying in a friend’s Redding RV park with a fenced in yard for his dogs. He’s made daily trips to Keswick after authorities opened the area to residents.

The town dates to the gold rush period of the 1850s and the area was mined for decades. Iron Mountain Mine, northwest of Keswick, was open from the 1860s until 1963 and became a Superfund site in 1983 due to acidic drainage.

Keswick also housed workers on several Central Valley Project dams, according to historical documents from the Shasta Historical Society.

The residents of Keswick live here for several reasons, Crabtree said.

“Back in 1979, there were a lot of older people who lived there going back to when they built the (water) tunnels between Lewiston and Whiskeytown,” he said in reference to the hydroelectric power project of Whiskeytown Dam. “They were construction types who chose to stay because they liked the Redding area. As they aged and died off, younger people bought because it was more affordable.”

But Keswick has its share of problems, including “tweekers” — as Crabtree describes them — who have moved in looking to escape the prying eyes of law enforcement.

Homes in Keswick are a mix of single-family dwellings, mobile homes and, Crabtree said, “anything a transient can find to stay in.”

As Crabtree sifted through ash and his charred belongings Wednesday, he mused at what his place once looked like and spoke promisingly that he would rebuild.

In front of his house, once a schoolhouse in the early 1900s, stand two, 40-foot-tall Italian cypress trees void of leaves more than two-thirds the way up the trunk. The concrete front steps still stand and Crabtree walked up them and through where his front door once stood to find a China plate from his ex-wife.

Pam Charles, who lives due south of Keswick in the community of Old Shasta, was excited to see her longtime friend Wednesday as he drove through the streets in and around Keswick, Rock Creek Road and her neighborhood.

She and her husband had been evacuated for 12 days, but their home was spared.

“This is so emotional to see what all these people are going through,” she said. “If you look at the area from drone footage, I’m living on an island of houses that survived.”

Crabtree told her about where houses had been saved and where the inferno had leveled entire blocks.

“This place was so beautiful and it’s never going to look the same in our lifetime,” she said. “The goal now is just to help our neighbors.”

That help takes different forms on different days.

Tuesday, old friends helped Crabtree retrieve his gun safe, load it in his truck and take it off site to cut the bottom open. Wednesday, he showed longtime friend Dick Smith, whose house on Rock Creek Road survived, the remains of the safe. Crabtree pulled out the scope and barrels of several rifles whose stocks had been burned, and two bags of silver dollars, Kennedy half dollars and Sacagawea dollars. He also showed Smith a paper-clipped charred stack of paper currency that had faint signatures of U.S. money.

“This fire was different,” said Smith, whose home just off Highway 299 was saved as fire crews used his large driveway as an engine staging area the morning of July 26. “The intensity and the damage are indescribable.”

The two friends joke about being able to see the lay of the land before Crabtree quips, “I guess all the lots are now view lots.”

Earlier in the week, Crabtree had been visiting Redding stores armed with his iPhone camera to create a visual list his daughter is helping catalog.

“I’ve been to Macy’s, Sportsman’s Warehouse, Petco, Ace Hardware and I can’t remember how many other stores trying to remember what I had,” he said.

The one question nagging Crabtree is how and when to begin cleanup.

Pat Minturn, Shasta County’s director of public works, said residents will be asked to have Cal Recycle come in and clean their parcel “to high environmental standards.”

Cleanup work would begin in the fall and take nearly five months, he said.

Whatever the process, Crabtree said he plans on returning to his home of 40 years.

“I love living here,” he said. “It’s in my blood.”

Emily Wax-Thibodeaux contributed to this report.



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