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Community responds for evacuees

As nightfall illuminated the Steven’s Fire threatening several of his community’s homes, Craig Sultana kept watch over the Sierra Vista Community Center, waiting patiently.

Volunteers with the American Red Cross commiserated in small circles, their job of setting up cots and preparing food packages done.

Now, all they had to do was wait for the dozens of residents sent packing as the blaze crept closer to their homes.



They weren’t expecting many takers Sunday night, as the 400-acre blaze continued.

“This is a small community, where everyone knows each other,” volunteer Elaine Bell said. While a number of people had signed up for assistance, Bell expected few to sleep at the center Sunday.




“People would rather stay with someone they know rather than 40 strangers. But we’ll be here all night, if anybody needs us.”

Locals left their contact numbers at the shelter, in case friends and family came looking later.

Sultana opened the shelter at 5 p.m. when a few of his community center board members called and said the hall was needed.

While some with animals chose to drive to the Gold Country Fairgrounds in Auburn, Sultana said the Colfax facility would remain open at least through tonight.

Within hours of the fire’s birth, Sultana and members of the community worked the phones so the displaced would have food and shelter. Sierra Market in Colfax donated food and water, and the local McDonald’s handed out free children’s meals. Other community members donated water, more food and blankets.

“In times of need, this town works fast,” said Sultana, a planning commissioner and Vietnam War veteran whom many locals call “Mr. Colfax.”

“All I have to do is call people, and they’ll be right over.”

Evacuees Rex Snowden, his wife Neita, and grown son, Chad, were prepared early on.

“At 2 p.m., I looked outside and saw smoke,” Rex Snowden said.

The Snowdens have lived in their house for 15 years and have never had to evacuate before, but they did not hesitate.

They quickly packed suitcases full of clothes, pulled all of their photographs, documents, jewelry, and took their dog, Daisy, to the car. Prior to leaving their home, which Rex Snowden said was near the center of the blaze, they had time to spray water outside of their home – all before a Placer County sheriff’s deputy told them they had to go.

“We were proactive,” Neita Snowden said.

“I’m praying for the best, but where the fire is, I’m expecting the worst,” Rex Snowden said.

While the California Highway Patrol cruised down Highway 174, imploring curious visitors viewing the fire from the Cape View bar to return to their vehicles and leave the area, Diane Deakins peered across the ridge to where the fire burned. Her son, Michael, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and volunteer Colfax firefighter, was one of dozens fighting the blaze as it neared a tunnel on the Southern Pacific railroad tracks.

“It’s always scary, and I’m always concerned, but he’s very good at what he does. He loves what he does, and he’s got a lot of talent,” Deakins said of her 21-year-old son, who spent the summer of 2003 battling blazes in Southern California.

As she spoke, dozens of men in tank tops and tanned women glanced at the smoke, viewing the fire with binoculars, as helicopters dumped water on the blaze. Many brought their children to watch the fire burn. Infants and toddlers sat atop their loved ones’ shoulders to catch a glimpse of the first major fire to affect the area since late August 2001, when the Ponderosa Fire blackened 2,700 acres near Weimar.

Joe Payette, who watched the Steven’s Fire light up an ebony sky from the bridge over the train tracks, said he’d reserve judgment on how this fire would affect the town he’s lived in for a quarter century.

“It’s too early to tell just yet,” he said, and walked away.

– The Union staff writer Roman Gokhman contributed to this story.


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