Ready and waiting / Tiny town’s fire company trains

Published in The
by Doug Mattson

You can get there heading east along San Juan Ridge, but not without thinking you’ve passed it. Or you can drive up the canyon from Washington, leaning into every curve until your stomach does back flips.

But you will get there. You will ask if you’re still in Nevada County. And you will learn what remote means.

Solar, wood and propane power Graniteville. The last business, a saloon, closed 20 years ago. Coins are only good for the phone kiosk on the main drag. Good luck getting your cell phone to work.

Daily newspapers arrive three times a week. In the winter, residents take turns trekking over a head-high snowpack toward the nearest post office, in Nevada City, for everyone’s mail.

Everyone, here, means eight all-year residents.

They live with mountain lions, deer and wild turkeys. They hear coyotes at night, and a bear recently busted a car window reaching for a Pop Tart.

Graniteville is a long way from a lot of things. The hardy say it’s closer to much more.

“I think we’re all modern-day pioneers, and that’s why we enjoy living here,” said Barb Harper, a 20-year resident.

But so much exposure isn’t all good, she and others agree. At 5,000 feet, thick in timber and 40 minutes from the closest fire station, the town sits like sulfur at the head of a match.

“The fuel is terrible,” said Paul Stone, a 72-year-old retiree. “There’s just not the manpower to clear it up, so we’re very vulnerable, no doubt about it.”

That’s why, three years ago, Stone, his wife, Norma, and a mix of all-year dwellers and summer vacationers started the Graniteville Volunteer Fire Company.

Eight strong, they train weekly with hand-me-down and donated equipment. They listen to the scanner and quiz each other.

“Serious nose-bleeding? What would you do?” the Stones recently pondered.

The smallest outfit in Nevada, Placer and Yuba counties, they await the big call that hasn’t come.

“We dread the time that it occurs, but on the other hand, it’s where you gain your experience,” Paul Stone said.

On a recent Sunday, firefighters with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection at Columbia Hill, the nearest station, taught the volunteers how to pull hose from the engine and shoot water.

Easy enough, but the former U.S. Forest Service engine, procured with CDF help, was having pump problems.

Not a big deal, Norma Stone said later. A Forest Service firefighter at White Cloud knows how to fix it.

Parked nearby was a rescue truck donated by the North San Juan Fire Protection District, which also helps with training. Other county fire agencies have pitched in with helmets, hoses and other essentials, and the company also has a heart defibrillator.

The town’s biggest event is its Fourth of July parade. Several hundred visitors buy T-shirts, barbecue and rummage sale items, with proceeds going to the fire company. The plan is to build a barn for its firefighting vehicles and equipment.

County funds provide another $3,000 each year for equipment, medical supplies and insurance.

“They’re truly a group of community-minded local residents who want to do something to protect their area,” said CDF Battalion Chief Rob Paulus, who helped start the company.

Because of its size and isolation, the crew isn’t likely to knock down a big blaze, but no one pretends that’s the objective. Protocol is to radio for help, assess the fire, and let the professional crews know what to expect.

And, if possible, shoot foam or water on the flames.

“Realistically, if it’s a real big fire, they’re not going to be able to put a big dent into it,” CDF firefighter Robert Nelson said during the training.

Later, the volunteers gathered for potluck at the Stones’, a former post office built in the 19th century.

Back then, one of the town’s main functions was breaking up ice along the clogged ditches and flumes that fed water to Malakoff Diggins. But the mines closed, and Graniteville became mostly a cabin retreat. About 40 people live there in the summer.

For Arrin Skelley of Menlo Park, summers in Graniteville are a family tradition begun by his grandparents – except they weren’t occupied learning CPR.

“You know you’re doing something good, and it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “And we’re constantly learning. It’s like being back in school again.”

Tammy Dayton, who lives just outside town, trained with her 2-year-old son, Ricky, in tow. She hopes he’ll become a doctor, but sees him impressed with firefighting.

Bernie Bishop of Oakland has seen the company’s biggest action so far.

Last spring, he and Paul Stone helped Washington firefighters on a 4-acre blaze on Gaston Grade by delivering water. “Being our first call, everything was a learning experience for us,” he said.

The biggest medical emergency came last fall. The Stones treated a man who bit through his tongue after the engine hood of an excavator landed on his head.

“He looked like he was going to go into shock,” said Paul Stone, who drove the victim to Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital.

Meanwhile, the firefighters keep rehearsing their roles. Big fires have, after all, struck Graniteville before.

A blaze in 1878 wiped out all but one building.

Fast-forward to 1987, when a fire stopped a quarter-mile short of town after hopping the Middle Yuba River.

That time, residents opened their homes to crews from across California, Arizona and New Mexico; fire engines were parked everywhere; and heavy smoke permeated everything, Norma Stone recalled.

“To us, they were like gods,” she said, “because they were going to save the town.”