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Devastated town rising from the ashes of the Rim fire

The blaze destroyed much of Groveland, a small town dependent on tourists bound for Yosemite, but residents are determined to bring it back to life.

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Devastated town rising from ashes of Rim fire

Dharma Barsotti stands in what used to be the base of a 1,000-year-old oak tree that towered over his family's old home on the Spinning Wheel ranch near Groveland, Calif. In mid-August 2013, the Rim fire incinerated the 1920s-era building, leaving only the fireplace. Barsotti is rebuilding but the fire ruined his once-thriving resort business. More photos

The blaze destroyed much of Groveland, a small town dependent on tourists bound for Yosemite, but residents are determined to bring it back to life.

Jan. 3, 2014

It's hard to evacuate a peacock.

As the Rim fire closed in on the Spinning Wheel guest ranch last summer, Dharma Barsotti had to leave Elan behind, and figured he'd never see him again. But when he returned, the bird was sitting on the porch of one of the houses that still stood, a vivid splash of color against the blackened landscape.

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On New Year's Eve, on his way to dinner with his siblings, Barsotti picked one of Elan's feathers off the ground and stuck it in his porkpie hat.

It had been one of those years when you hang on to the bright spots.

The Rim fire, California's third-largest on record, raged for two months. It burned 257,314 acres of the Sierra Nevada range, including 10% of Yosemite National Park, the draw that brings people through Groveland on California 120. Two weeks after the smoke cleared, the federal government shut down, closing Yosemite for weeks during a balmy, blue-skied autumn.

Then, two weeks after the shutdown ended, the snows came and closed the Sierra passes for the season. In the isolated quiet there were transformations, large and small.

The most dedicated karaoke singer in town took to drinking too much, then stopped drinking or going out at all. A recent widow studied up on wildflowers after a fire. California Department of Transportation worker Rick Martinez — a former member of the "Over 300, Big Boys Club," as he puts it — shed 47 pounds. He'd put in 14-hour days during the fire but was plagued by thoughts of whether he could have done more if he hadn't been so exhausted.

At the Iron Door Saloon, Dharma's sister Corinna cut staff and took over all the cooking shifts. Her husband, Chris Loh, worked the bar.

They may have to sell the Iron Door.

Rick Martinez, a Caltrans worker, sits at the bar of the Iron Door Saloon in Groveland on Dec. 19, 2013. Martinez says he worked 14-hour days to keep California 120 open for firefighters during the massive Rim wildfire that burned from August to October 2013. More photos

Running the saloon, which has been serving drinks since 1896, was thrust into Corinna's hands when her mother died 10 years ago. Corinna was 25 and had different dreams.

Lately she's been feeling a mix of weepy and exhilarated.

"Our houses burned. The bar's going," she said. "And inside me, I feel this deep sense of change."

With walls of rock, a roof of sod and doors of iron, the Iron Door Saloon is designed to withstand fire. The doors were made in England 76 years ago, shipped around the tip of South America, hauled across the Tuolumne River and up a narrow mountain shelf by donkey.

Peter and Bettike Barsotti bought the saloon and the Spinning Wheel Yosemite ranch in 1985. Peter was the right-hand man of Bill Graham, the rock 'n' roll promoter. Peter and his brother Bob were responsible for the first Lollapalooza and the Grateful Dead's annual New Year's Eve shows.

At the Trout House, the old family home, the branch of a 1,000-year-old black oak curved around a second-story window. A baby bear once climbed onto the branch and Bettike sat in the window, talking to it for an hour.

In 1987, wildfires burned across the Sierra, killing four firefighters. Bettike sent her four children to the Bay Area, but stayed at the ranch cooking for fire crews. She kept the Iron Door open, serving warm beer since the electricity was out, and invited all who had to evacuate to leave their pets in the bar.

Bettike was killed in a car accident in 2004, and Peter died of cancer eight years later. Like her mother, Corinna and Chris sent their children to the Bay Area during the Rim fire and stayed to keep the Iron Door open.

At the ranch, Dharma helped guests evacuate, sending them to Sonora, about 45 minutes north, to buy clothes — there was no time for packing. He took Peter's white German shepherd, Max, to Corinna's home for safekeeping, then tried to return. But the main road was blocked by law enforcement and the back roads by fire.

Somehow an English family made it to the ranch and started unpacking.

"They were unloading their trunk with their kids. The firefighters were like 'How did you get here? Can you not see that fire?'" Dharma said. "There's always something unexpected, even when nothing is normal."

On a chilly December night, a patron takes a smoke break outside the Iron Door Saloon in Groveland. It's Karaoke Night at the 118-year-old landmark but the saloon is all but empty of locals. "I think everyone is just feeling a little whipped," said bartender Johnny Owens. More photos

Dharma is Barsotti's given name. ("It was 1974. Later they named my brother Matthew," he said.) All the cabins were booked through the season and there was a clause in the contracts for acts of God. But that first week he wrote $40,000 in refund checks.

"With a name like mine, you have to believe in karma," he said. "These were people's vacation, and suddenly they had no place to stay."

At the ranch, the charred oak lay on the ground. The Trout House had burned down, as had the Riverside Cabin. Peter's signed posters from bands such as Jefferson Airplane had hung on their walls.

The destruction revealed stone slabs with Indian grinding holes beneath the deck. Locals say it took a hundred years to grind one inch of granite. Some of the holes are 10 inches deep.

Max went missing the day after the evacuation. Corinna's fence is high and Max had bad hips. People in town think someone took the old dog.

Dharma hopes so.

"If someone took him," he said, "someone can bring him back."

More than 2 million people pass through Groveland on their way to Yosemite each year. Six hundred live in Groveland proper. They're rock climbers, glass blowers, woodworkers, chefs. They come with wealth, or work as housekeepers, bartenders and firefighters to stay "on the hill."

Even the most conservative among them was drawn to a life apart.

Peggy Mosley, 79, owner of the Groveland Hotel, stands on the porch overlooking California 120. The vacancy sign has been lit since the Rim wildfire burned to the edge of town and dried up her business. The tragedy was preceded by the death of her husband of 55 years just as the Rim fire started raging out of control in August 2013. Then the federal government shutdown kept nearby Yosemite National Park closed, robbing her of the tourists she and the Gold Rush-era town thrive on. More photos

Peggy Mosley, 79, said she was destined for Groveland as a 6-year-old. She was playing in her Memphis front yard when a plane circled overhead.

"Open cockpit, scarf, everything," she said.

The pilot dropped a box tied in twine that held a horny toad from out West. Mosley decided then she would fly a plane someday and see the other side of the country.

As a grown woman she bought a plane, then a house in Groveland in a development with a private airstrip. On a whim, she bought a decrepit, Gold Rush-era hotel next to the Iron Door and turned it into a place of featherbeds and an extensive wine list. She likes to open a fine vintage and share it with a guest or two, but lately she keeps a vacuum-seal cork at the bar because there's often no one to share with.

During the Rim fire, the Groveland Hotel was packed with television crews, fire managers and a couple kicked out of the park on their honeymoon. Mosley went to each table at breakfast, exchanging pleasantries with a smile.

Rim fire clouds

California's Rim fire raged for two months near Groveland and into Yosemite National Park in late 2013, creating towering pyrocumulus clouds.

She gave no hint that the memorial service for Grover Mosley, her husband of 55 years, had been the same day the fire spun out of control.

"You just do what you have to do. You say: 'Thank you, Lord, for all you've given me. I've got this handled. It's OK for you to move on to the next guy,'" she said.

Along with Jerry Garcia's children, the Barsotti kids used to play the New Year baby at the Grateful Dead bashes.

"One year I had to punch out of an egg and Bill Graham was a rainbow chicken," Corinna said.

It's a tradition they continue at the Iron Door. Each year someone in town dresses up as the symbolic New Year and the saloon throws an elaborate themed party.

This year, the town gathered as always. The groove band The Penetrators was the same one that had played at the saloon's thank-you party for firefighters in September.

"I really leaned on the mic during 'Stand By Me,' said sax player Ben Petry. "Couldn't you just feel the vibe? That song resonated with everyone inside these old walls."

Rick Martinez, the Caltrans worker, was the star of the dance floor. Joey Mosley got his elegantly dressed grandmother Peggy to the bar — to his shock and everyone else's. No one could recall her setting foot in the saloon before.

Joey Mosley's younger brother was killed in a car crash this year and it was his grandmother's first New Year's Eve as a widow. He came up from Simi Valley because he didn't want her to be alone.

Near midnight, a float decorated in flames moved toward the stage from the back of the room. Matthew Barsotti's fiancee, Brittaney, dressed in red feathers, her face painted with flames, carried their 6-month-old baby, Josephine, wrapped in an egg as the baby New Year.

In Groveland, 2014 came in on the arms of Phoenix Rising.

"We've all had our tragedies. We've all been burned one way or the other," Chris Loh shouted from the stage. "But we're standing, y'all. We rose from the ashes."

The band counted down to midnight. Balloons dropped. Corinna grabbed one, hit it into the air and laughed as she watched it float away.

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