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Paradise resident Allen Weidner was on his way home from the bottom of the Sherwin Grade when he saw flames shooting into the early evening sky on Nov. 7.
He shot up the hill, fearing the worst. The flames were immense, leaving little doubt this was more than a simple, easily stopped fire and from what he could see, it was either his home or his next-door neighborâ€™s.
When he got to the ring of fire trucks and emergency vehicles, he almost turned around right there.
â€śIt was hard to look, I could tell it was my house, but I had to look,â€ť he said. â€śThen it was hard to stop, I wanted to keep going, but I couldnâ€™t just drive past my house.â€ť
He stopped and got out.
He saw his 13-year-old dog, Valentine, whom he had left at the house, tied up at his neighborsâ€”a moment of grace. His wife, Heidi Goodwin, was just coming home to the same scene. One of them had left their cell phone in the house that day, and until they saw each other, Weidner wasnâ€™t sure if Goodwin was alrightâ€”another moment of grace.
One of their two cats was out of the houseâ€”another blessing.
But later, firefighters found the second cat, Snowball, whom Goodwin had tamed from feral to affectionate, curled under the bed in the house, a victim of heat and/or smoke inhalation.
The house, which Weidner had hired a contractor to build for himself and his first wife (she died in 2007) was burned from the inside out, perhaps an electrical problem, though the investigation is ongoing. They had lost everything except their two surviving pets, the clothes on their backs, and few charred keepsakes and household items.
â€śI found out one thing,â€ť Weidner said this week, with a rueful laugh. â€śI found out that if you pile enough clothes on the floor in a heap, the ones inside the pile donâ€™t burn in 1,000 degree heat. But Iâ€™m sure done with the smell of smoke, the taste of smoke in my mouth. And this, all of this, this is crushing.â€ť
â€śIt is heartbreaking,â€ť said Goodwin. â€śMy heart is breaking for my beautiful blue-eyed Snowball, for Allenâ€™s loss of this house he had built, for everything lost.â€ť
Weidner is a 16-year veteran of Mammoth Mountainâ€™s lift maintenance crew; Goodwin a 19-year Mammoth Mountain ski instructor.
Their insurance will pay for material losses, the things money can replace.
In the meantime, itâ€™s Thanksgiving and their home, most of Goodwinâ€™s irreplaceable and original artâ€”especially the pieces she painted in Antarctica and New Zealandâ€”and part of their family, Snowball, is gone forever.
Only one thing has made the situation partly bearable.
â€śThis is the most amazing community,â€ť said Weidner. â€śMy community at Mammoth Mountain, my neighbors, our families and friends. I am so grateful to know we are surrounded by this incredible group of people.â€ť
The donations have come pouring in, Goodwin saidâ€”clothing, household items, food. Neighbors bring them lunch and dinner as they pick thought the charred ashes of their home, looking for anything to salvage, counting the damage for the insurance company.
â€śThe firefighters that were here in minutes could not have been more professional, more compassionate,â€ť she said.
Mammoth Mountain gave the couple a place to live in employee housing until they decide what to do next, where to go.
â€śWe have our own little place right now, thanks to the Mountain, and thatâ€™s incredible,â€ť said Weidner.
Though the losses, which mount each day as each missing item must be remembered and accounted for, they lean on each other, their families, their friendsâ€”and something intangible.
â€śItâ€™s put things into perspective,â€ť said Weidner. â€śI know thatâ€™s clichĂ©, but itâ€™s true. It shows how much we have to give, what a position we are all in to give, even when we donâ€™t think what we have is valuable. The other day, we had a traveling friend here and she wanted to see the Eastern Sierra. I found some of my maps, only slightly burned, and gave them to her.
â€śIt was something we could give, even in this time, something that means something to someone else.
â€śWe are so grateful to Mammoth Mountain, to my lift crew, to the firefighters, to our friends and neighbors. And most of all, we still have each other. Thatâ€™s our Thanksgiving.â€ť