Fire-stricken Sierra area rebounds

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WALKER, Calif. -- A roadside craft fair, an outdoor concert and a barbecue. Sounds like a typical small-town fall festival, but it's got a deeper meaning here in a dusty Sierra field barely spared by two devastating wildfires this summer.

Just a few hundred yards away in another field, a C130A air tanker crashed while dropping a load of fire retardant, killing all three men on board.

This weekend, Walker gathered to celebrate its survival -- and to hail its renewal.

"We were all sitting around and we said, 'We got to do something to help the community,"' said Bob Cashell, owner of the Topaz Lodge. "I think that these people down here deserve all the help that they can get."

Cashell's hotel-casino on the California-Nevada line 14 miles north of here and 60 miles south of Reno, opened its rooms and dining areas to the people of Walker when June's deadly 22,750-acre blaze forced evacuations of some 400 people as fire rimmed the city.

Ironically, a 9,866-acre fire the following month forced the lodge to shut down as flames moved within a half mile of the building.

The "No Vacancy" sign was lit Saturday as visitors filled its 104 rooms before heading to Walker.

"Hopefully, we can convince some people the area is not as devastated from an aesthetic standpoint as people might think," said general manager Rick Ross.

The only structures lost this summer were a travel trailer and an outbuilding.

The craft fair and concert, featuring Grammy Award-winning singer Juice Newton, were held in the shadow of Sierra peaks dotted by blackened skeletons of sagebrush and pine.

"I was asked if I would come to do a show to try to raise the awareness, to raise some money," she said after Saturday's concert. "Of course I'd come. Why not? I mean, what could you not come and do? You've gotta help."

Ross said the town, which subsists on family-owned arts and crafts shops and a handful of motels and restaurants, suffered financially from the fires, which shut down its highway linking northern Nevada and Southern California.

"We're hoping to expose the area and get a big boost economically this weekend -- to get some people who haven't been here in awhile," Ross said.

Newton, fighting a cold, sang for more than an hour to a crowd of about 200 seated on scattered hay bales. They paid $10 each -- money that went to the Chamber of Commerce to promote the area.

"We're all part of California, and we all are sensitive as to what can happen with fires" said Newton, who lives north of San Diego. "I live in an area where, if it caught on fire, it would go up.

"In a community like this ... the fire here was so really devastating. You've got to be sensitive to that and come around and try to help."


On the Net:

Mono County Web site:

Topaz Lodge Web site:

Juice Newton Web site:


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