Fire victim rebuilds life in Sonora

Written by Christina O'Haver, The Union Democrat February 25, 2013 10:02 am

John O’Brien, formerly of Chinese Camp, now of Sonora, holds his old fire helmet. Maggie Beck / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
A T-shirt and watch are among the few items John O’Brien has left from the Chinese Camp house he lived in for two decades.

O’Brien lost nearly everything on Dec. 8 when his mobile home on Red Hills Road went up in flames.

But, less than three months later, the 89-year-old man is in good spirits and grateful for the local people who have helped him over the past couple months.

“He’s doing really well, considering,” said Lynette Covington, one of O’Brien’s Chinese Camp neighbors.

The American Red Cross placed O’Brien in a Quail Hollow One apartment in Sonora after his house burned down. He decided to stay in the complex, and switched units with the help of Covington and other former neighbors. 

“We all hustled to get him moved in,” Covington said. “Everybody tends to help each other around here when there’s a crisis.”

She said the Quail Hollow One staff provided him with furniture and has “bent over backwards” for him since he moved in.

When O’Brien had to miss the Christmas luncheon for senior residents, the staff delivered a plate of food to his apartment.

Back in Chinese Camp, the community has worked to remove the rubble from O’Brien’s six-acre property so he can sell it.

His longtime neighbor and real estate agent Veronica Hemphill said Moyle Excavation, a Jamestown contracting company, has cleaned up the land for “next to nothing.”

O’Brien said he is too old to rebuild and instead plans to move to an assisted living home — Veterans Home of California-Yountville. 

Applying for the Veterans Affairs facility has been a lengthy process, especially since the documents required for his application were destroyed in the fire, Covington said.

She is hopeful O’Brien’s application is accepted so he can move closer to family in San Francisco and meet other military veterans.

O’Brien served in World War II in the U.S. Marine Corps’ famed Black Sheep squadron. He said the Dec. 8 blaze also claimed his military memorabilia.

Another difficult loss for O’Brien was his dog, Caesar. 

“When I was crawling out, he was right next to me and I petted him on the nose,” he said. “But he turned back around and went back into the fire. My God, I had that dog for 15 years.”

O’Brien said the fire started when an extension cord that was lying across his bed short-circuited.

“I couldn’t unleash it from the wall, the line was too hot, and it just burned up the whole place,” he said.

O’Brien, who gets around with a cane, tried to exit the home but fell in the living room. 

His neighbors of 16 years, Bill and Jesse Penrose, found him lying on the floor and pulled him to safety.

Covington described O’Brien as honest and non-judgmental, and said he is always willing to help others.

“I think that’s why everybody helped (him),” she said.  

O’Brien is well-known in the community not only as a veteran but as the former owner of the Chinese Camp General Store for about 20 years and former chief of the Chinese Camp Volunteer Fire Department.

He also made cameos in several Hollywood productions shot in Tuolumne County, including “The Apple Dumpling Gang” and “The Gambler.”

“He was a community leader when we actually had a thriving community,” Hemphill said.