FEATHER FALLS, Calif. - When the Bear fire barreled over the mountain ridge headed for the Butte County town of Feather Falls, Nancy Baker Preston and her daughter Kellie Swann made a pact: meet at the Gold Flake.
After packing their most important possessions, Preston and Swann converged at the historic saloon, which doubles as a post office with a small grocery. The sky burnt the air orange, transforming trees into a glowing green. Ash fell like snow.
Inside the saloon, the phone was "ringing off the wall," said owner Sandy Bourasa, 53. In a mountain town with spotty cell signal, the old saloon's currency is information. Even during normal times, the pulse of Feather Falls runs through the Gold Flake's phone lines. As one of two volunteer firefighters in town - the other is her husband, Craig, 57 - Bourasa pleaded with her neighbors: "Get off the hill."
Since lightning storms ignited the Plumas National Forest on Aug. 17, smoldering for weeks and then exploding into the North Complex fire, much of the state's attention has focused on the town of Berry Creek, which was obliterated in the flames, killing at least 13 people. But at roughly the same time, on Sept. 8, the fire roared into Feather Falls, taking with it the lives of two residents: Randy Harrell, 67, and Jacob "Jake" Albright, 74, a former Gold Flake owner.
Dozens of homes, the meetinghouse, schoolhouse and acres of beloved forest are gone. Preston, Swann and their families survived with their homes mostly intact (a shed on Swann's property collapsed, breaking 12 solar panels and a freezer full of food).
As of Saturday morning, 78% of the fire was contained as fire crews fought to hold their lines of protection ahead of a weekend of windy weather. The Gold Flake, Feather Falls' last remaining landmark of the tightknit mountain town, stands untouched.
"That's the hub of the community," Bourasa said Thursday. "And it's the only thing we've got."
Dating back to at least the 1950s, the Gold Flake Saloon is a nod to the region's mining past, painted barn red with signs that advertise "dry goods and such" and other necessities, such as horse shoes and "ales to go." Though it has moved around throughout the years, the town post office next door officially turned 100 years old in March, according to Bourasa.
The bar is open every day for residents to swing by and shoot a game of pool or gab with Swann, one of the saloon's four employees. Every holiday is celebrated at the Gold Flake, with dress-up Halloween parties and full Thanksgiving spreads, complete with fried turkeys.
Craig Bourasa was stationed at the Gold Flake, distributing water to other fire crews from his truck. Someone at headquarters radioed him that the fire was headed his way. He drove around the corner and pulled out his phone, ready to film his business going up in flames. Then his radio patched again: "Structure protection for the Gold Flake."