Sixty-six year old Wesley Dye pointed at a sloped hillside beside his childhood home on Apple Colony Road in Tuolumne.
“When I was a kid, my mom and dad got a washer and dryer. Before they built that house there, we took the boxes and rolled down the hill inside of them,” he said.
He looked toward the eaves of the home, now a charred husk overhanging the blackened windows. The house was destroyed in a fire Thursday morning.
Back then, the hill was covered in thistles latched to the outside of the boxes, he said.
“When you got out, you got poked,” he said.
He remembered his parents being mad because his sister fell out of the box.
“I just kept rolling down the hill.”
Dye looked through the house to see what belongings could be salvaged. He lives in an apartment in Tuolumne, but his sister, Linda, her husband Melvin Slate, his niece, and his mother, Nettie Dye, 86, were all in the home.
“It’s been home. I grew up here. This has always been the place where everybody comes. It’s just unbelievable to see this place gone,” Wesley Dye said.
Nettie Dye moved into the newly built home in 1954, before another residence was built along the north edge of the property. She worked as a cook at Soulsbyville Elementary, a stone’s throw away on the other side of Apple Colony Road.
As children on Christmas Eve, the family opened presents together in the living room. On Christmas Day, the children could “do their own thing” with their gifts, Wesley Dye said.
Even after Wesley Dye served four years in the Air Force from 1971 to 1975 — stationed in Florida, Guam and Merced — and returned home to become a logger, and while Melvin Slate worked in Standard Mill and Linda looked after their two children, the home was a beacon for their frequent reunions.
Wesley Dye walked through the living room and pointed out the fire damage, restricted mostly to a bedroom, hallway and bathroom. In the kitchen, near the back door where Nettie Dye, Linda Slate and their niece fled from the smoke, potatoes and onions on the counter had soaked up a shade of smoggy black.
“Where did this come from?” Wesley Dye said, swiping a photograph off a wooden table.
He held it up to the light. It was him, Linda, his mother, and his younger brother, Richard.
“This whole place, we’ve been here forever,” he said. “The house, there ain’t no saving it. I don’t know what plans there are from here.”
Nettie Dye was released from Adventist Health - Sonora on Thursday, while Linda Slate was kept overnight and expected to be released Friday. Melvin was taken by air ambulance to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento and was being held in the intensive care unit for smoke inhalation and burns, Dye said.
Tuolumne Fire Protection District Chief Nicholas Ohler said when firefighters arrived at 9 a.m. Thursday, fire billowed out of the front bedroom windows. Two firefighters charged the concrete staircase and blasted water through the front door while Ohler ran to three family members who escaped out the back door. Melvin Slater was dragged out of the house, semi-conscious, by fire personnel.
Ohler said the cause of the fire was still undetermined, but Wesley Dye said Melvin fell asleep with a lit cigarette. The explosions heard throughout the neighborhood were caused by Melvin Slate’s oxygen tanks, which burst from the heat.
“As soon as I heard about it I headed this way, but they wouldn’t let me in,” Wesley Dye said. “So I left to find them at the hospital.”
Ohle said the fire was contained by 9:21 a.m.
“Crews made good, quick work of it. Hopefully they were able to preserve some of their belongings due to aggressive fire attack, salvage and overhaul,” he said.
Personnel from Tuolumne Rancheria Fire Department, Cal Fire Tuolumne Calaveras Unit, Cal Fire Tuolumne County Fire Protection District, Mi-Wuk Sugar Pine Fire Protection District and the Twain Harte Fire Department assisted, Ohler said.