Evacuees hole up in ravaged rural town’s bar
REDWOOD VALLEY, Mendocino County — On a typical evening, McCarty’s Bar in this small community north of Ukiah could be doing anything from serving a handful of regular customers to hosting a reggae concert or ’80s night.
But on Thursday, the watering hole served another function: informal evacuation center for people displaced by the Mendocino County fires, with donations pouring in from locals.
“It’s bringing people together through tragedy,” said bartender Crystal Maples, who opened the doors at 2:30 a.m. Monday after sprinting away from the flames that had erupted in Potter Valley.
The scene in this locally owned establishment — where people are sleeping on air mattresses on the dance floor and in RVs parked outside — captures how a close-knit piece of Mendocino has persevered in the face of a fire that after four days refuses to fade.
Measured by numbers alone, the severity of the fires in Mendocino County is on a scale with the destruction to the south. As of Thursday, eight people were known to have died. More than 34,000 acres had burned, according to the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and as many as 250 homes had been destroyed.
The frustration and nerves were on display at a community meeting Thursday afternoon in the cafeteria at Ukiah High School, another shelter location, this one official. More than 200 residents crowded in, with so many standing that some people had their backs pressed against the wall.
When county Sheriff Tom Allman asked if the audience had any questions, many hands shot up: When can we go back home? When will the extent of the evacuation area be reduced?
“I hear you loud and clear,” Allman said. But “what we don’t want to do is put people back in and then have to evacuate them again.”
Cal Fire officials echoed his concern, saying a forecast of heavy winds for the weekend meant that the fire could double back over places that have already been hit hard — like Redwood Valley.
Afterward, a drive through part of the town of 2,000 people showed the reason for caution. What had been a landscape of trees acquiring fall colors had become defaced by melted cars, blackened mailboxes and gutted homes. Some lots still smoldered.
The one business that has stayed open this week within the evacuation area is Redwood Valley Market — in part because it’s right across the street from the Fire Department.
“We’re on the same gas and electric lines as the fire station, and they want us to stay open,” said Alex Chahada, who owns the market with his brother Anthony.
Pretty much the only supplies coming in were what Alex could bring from his home in Ukiah — “they’re letting us cross the (evacuation) line as workers” — so perishable food like fresh meat was running low. So was bottled water.
The store still opened at 7 a.m., as it usually does, but closing time was 4 p.m., five hours early. There was one worker per shift instead of the usual three or four.
“We haven’t had too many people coming in, a couple an hour,” said Brooke Whipple, who works at the market and lives a few miles south in Calpella.
Most of the customers are firefighters or police. A few others live nearby and defied the evacuation orders. One was camping out this week across the street in his car, visiting the market to buy food and use the bathroom.
Back at McCarty’s, Maples scurried behind the bar serving fellow evacuees. It felt like any other evening, with plenty of chatter and good spirits. The difference was the aluminum cartons of food donated from local restaurants and the donated clothes piled atop the pool table.
After closing time, Maples and a dozen or more fire evacuees would head to the dance floor, where several air mattresses, blankets and pillows were ready. Others planned to huddle in their cars and RVs outside. One evacuee’s horse was stabled in the beer garden until further notice.
“People are wanting to stay close to home,” said Karen McCarty, who bought the bar with her brother two years ago when the previous owner retired after 35 years. “It started
by chance, but we’ve become an unofficial evacuation center.”
Some donations have been large-scale, such as the pallets of water bottles and clothes from Soil King, a nursery in Cloverdale. Others have included tents and lanterns from residents.
“I know that Santa Rosa and other places are getting the public attention, and I understand why,” McCarty said. “But this is a small community. We all know a dozen people who have lost their homes. We’re sticking together.”
Besides, there are certain advantages to an impromptu refuge like the one on East Road across from a vineyard, next to G&J’s New and Used.
“At a bar, you can get camaraderie that you don’t get at Ukiah High School,” McCarty said.
Trisha Thadani and John King are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: tthadani@ sfchronicle.com, jking@ sfchronicle.com Twitter: @TrishaThadani, @JohnKingSFChron