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Neighbors Do Their Part As Families Battled Fire

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Michael Schwinghammer spent Friday afternoon helping his neighbors save their homes. With neighbors soaked in fire retardant dropped from an airplane, he managed to keep the flames at bay.

Schwinghammer and his family live at the top of Blaire Drive, on Ross Drive, where the Pattison Fire wreaked much of its havoc for fire crews.

Joanne, Michael´s wife, was working at the Valley Springs Youth Center when the blaze broke out. She couldn´t get home to help her husband water the hillside that leads up to the building´s back deck. “I got back in that night,” Joanne said.

Michael had packed the family critters n dogs, a pot-bellied pig, and others n into an SUV once he saw the smoke from the fire building. He left the animals in the vehicle in case he had to leave in a hurry. “I saw that smoke coming closer and closer and closer,” Michael said.

That´s when he went outside and worked tirelessly Friday as air tankers dropped fire retardant all around him. He was soaked with the pinkish goop when one drop was made. He worked across the street, dragging hoses from one neighbor´s hose to another, dousing bushes and grass. “If we can save a neighbor´s house, that´s what we´ll do,” he said Friday.

At the heat of the battle, Schwinghammer said flames licked at his home´s deck, but were stopped before they could claim his dwelling. “The firefighters did an awesome job,” Schwinghammer said Saturday morning. “They had to give me oxygen; I was couching up black.”

While the house was spared, the family barn was not.

Embers from the fire landed on some plastic skylights, Schwinghammer theorizes, which melted and ignited a fire inside the barn.

Joanne said her son´s hope chest was destroyed, along with the family´s 1991 BMW 85I. “I had just washed and waxed it that morning,” Joanne said.

Even more tragic though, was the loss of most of the donations Joanne had collected for an upcoming Gardeners´ Garage Sale, set to happen Sept. 21, at the Calaveras County Master Gardeners Fall Festival at Utica Park in Angels Camp. “I don´t know what we´re going to do,” Joanne said.

“But a gardener can always see the positive,” she said. All the poison oak that had overtaken four oak trees on the family property was burned but the trees will survive.

Just down the road from the Schwinghammers, Gerry Porath and his son Randy were dashing around the neighborhood trying to help folks, too.

“The only reason our house is standing is we had it cleared really well and my husband and son stayed here all night long,” said Pat Porath, who also credited regular visits by CDF fire crews.

Gerry, who retired from the Calaveras County Water District a week ago today, said Randy doused flames that had ignited in a neighbor´s barn.

But they watched in horror as the house at the corner of Ross Drive and Gregg Court burned to the ground. “Some CCWD guys helped move the dogs” that were locked in the backyard, Gerry Porath said. “The smoke was so intense.”

At 2:30 p.m., Gary Frampton was heading to his Meadow Oaks Drive home from Stockton. When he got to the house, the Pattison Fire had reached the other end of Ross Drive. Frampton and two friends watched the property next door while they soaked the land near the Frampton home.

“We thought the fire was going the other way,” Frampton said Saturday. But instead of heading northeast, the fire doubled back when the winds swirled. “It fooled us.”

Frampton, a general contractor who built his home about two years ago using concrete siding, said he dropped pumps into his swimming pool and used generators to keep the water flowing.

The property next door was under construction. Once its roof caught fire, Frampton and friends retreated to his house and positioned themselves along the ridgeline. Below them, Frampton said the chemise created a hot fire that was unpredictable. “We soaked the hillside,” he said. “When it crested (the hilltop) it was raining embers. I was throwing buckets of water all over.”

Once his house was safe, Frampton said he then battled the blaze at his uncle´s house and then his parent´s house, both within 100 yards of his home.

Frampton´s wife, Shonda, and sons, Jesse, 8 and Dusty, 5, were back in Valley Springs because they weren´t allowed to return home. Gary Frampton didn´t know the area had been evacuated. “I didn´t even know they´d kicked us out,” he said. “If I would´ve left, I wouldn´t have a house.”

Jesse, the couple´s eldest son, was celebrating his eighth birthday Friday. “We had cake at school,” Jesse said.

But when Gary went into town and brought his brood back to the property at about 10:30 that night, the festivities turned to tears. “There was still fire everywhere,” Shonda Frampton said. “When we came up to the cul-de-sac, it was all on fire.”

“I was crying because I thought we were going to lose our house,” Jesse said. “The embers lit my roof.”

“It looked like a nuclear bomb went off,” Shonda said.

The family celebrated Jesse´s birthday Saturday when Shonda´s sister brought Kentucy Fried Chicken and cake. Another neighborhood youth celebrated his eighth birthday too. Jesse and Dusty then went to Stockton for the night.

“When they called,” Shonda said, “Jesse asked if the fire was still there. I told him ‘No.´ But then he asked if it would ever come back. I hope that takes a few years.”

“It´s a birthday to remember,” she said.

Calaveras Enterprise story by Mike Taylor. For more Calaveras news,