stories by joe rosato jr

Greenville Fire Victim Plots Rebuilding Effort

NBC Universal, Inc.

Ken Donnell stood with as much stoicism as a person could possibly muster while surveying the piles of rubble that had once been his music store and his nearby house -- in what was now the town of Greenville only in name.

Just under two weeks ago, the town was leveled by the Dixie Fire in what Donnell describes as a fire-nado, chewing through 52 businesses and more than 500 homes.

"It just hurts," he said matter-of-factly

Donnell had poured himself into his Greenville business, Donnell's music, selling and repairing musical instruments and recently expanding into ice cream and costume sales. A lingering twang from his native Texas slipped in and out of his words.

"You feel like you're living in someone else's disaster," Donnell said, "but it's not, it's yours."

But as the entire downtown Greenville lay before him in sprawling destruction -- piles of bricks from the 1800s astride a toppled pot-belly stove, the only testimony to the town's Gold Rush roots -- Donnell dared to offer a hopeful vision for rebuilding.

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"I want to do it because I want to see this town regrow," he said, an orange safety vest swaying over a purple shirt. "I want to see it become something spectacular."

Locals of this scenic mountain region will boast at being a hearty bunch. Since the 1800s, when lumber mills filled the area's cash registers, the town was a place where one had to survive. In recent years, after the lumber mills mostly shuttered, the economy sputtered. Greenville's population sagged and swelled before setting at roughly a thousand.

"Success here in Plumas County is you survive the winter," Donnell said. "If you survive the winter, you're a success story."

Now, survival would require a considerable more more mettle. To prove he was up to the challenge, Donnell said he's already taken out a fictitious name statement, the first step toward opening a new business he appropriately plans to call the Greenville General Store. He envisions it peddling musical instruments, costumes, ice cream, tea and building supplies.

"It's just stuff," he said astride a pile of debris. "Now I have the fun job of accumulating new stuff."

Local rancher Will Meyers parked in the middle of Main Street in what had been downtown Greenville and surveyed the devastating scene. He had driven through the town the night of the fire, hearing propane tanks explode and feeling the searing wall of fire begin to erase history.

"It won't be the same because all the cultural heritage and history has been lost," Meyers said. "But we will be able to to rebuild."

Plumas County Supervisor Kevin Goss lost his Greenville pharmacy in the fire, a building that dated back to 1860. On Thursday he stood watch in nearby North Arm as fire threatened to ride the winds down the ridge to claim his house too. A small garden sprinkler darted back and forthcoating a small oval of grass with water. A broad bulldozer trail snaked through his property marking the battle lines.

Even in his current predicament, Goss was working the phones trying to line-up assistance for community members, while starting to plot the town's eventual rebirth.

"I don’t want folks to leave because i know that there’s people saying 'I don’t want to be here anymore,'" Goss said. "And I want them to be here because we’re going to get back to this -- it’s just going to take time."

When asked about the spirit of the area's folk, Goss cited a story about families who had lost everything in the fire, looking for volunteer opportunities to help others. Already in the nearby town of Quincy, residents had set up resource centers to help their Greenville brethren.

"Everybody knows everybody," Goss said. "That's how we're going to get back."

Donnell, who has taken up writing updates for the Plumas News, has been in and out of the fire zone -- so caught up in capturing stories and helping steer people to resources that he's barely been able to dive into his own grief.

And yet here he was, surrounded by the ashes of his previous life -- eyeing the possibility of a future one.

"We lost one dream," Donnell said. "Now it's time to make a new one."

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