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In California's largest wildfire, one 'brother' barely saves another

IN THE DIABLO RANGE, Calif. - The second-largest wildfire in California history took four days to reach Karla Schultz's 88-acre ranch in the rugged ridges and ravines behind Mount Hamilton, a place so far in the eastern reaches of Santa Clara County that it's closer to the Central Valley than Silicon Valley in nearly every way.

When the flames arrived, the winds violently shifted. And suddenly the whipping inferno overran James Schultz, the beloved local mail carrier, and Tom Shelton, an iron worker whom Schultz considered a brother. They had been desperately setting up sprinklers to save their trailers and other buildings on the property.

A week later, their survival story is harrowing and their burns are horrendous - Shelton's are mostly on his arms and torso from smothering the flames that engulfed Schultz. But their ordeal has brought closer together the self-described "Hill People" who live on these distant ranches in a place that is completely foreign to the 6 million people on the other side of the hill.

"I haven't cried all week until now," said Katrina Biel, who started a fundraiser with her "Sagebrush Sisters" book club for the young men being treated at the University of California, Davis burn center.

Out here, the SCU Lightning Complex has burned up 364,000 acres - more than three times the size of San Jose. But the area is so remote and sparsely inhabited that fewer than two dozen structures have been destroyed, a fraction of the destruction in the LNU and CZU fires burning closer to the region's population centers from Napa and Vacaville to the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The hardy folks who live here - locals estimate several hundred - pride themselves on their independence and self-sufficiency. Most truck in their water and generate their own power from the sun and wind.

Biel has been sliding down hillsides with a chainsaw this week, she says, clearing manzanita and brush next to her family's cabin as the fire blew up on the hillside across from their ranch.

Biel and her husband, Mark, along with a number of others ignored evacuation orders so they could protect their properties with the bulldozers and water tanks of ranch life that do double duty for fires. They've been watching the fire come and go for days and enduring "knock-you-over kind of wind," Biel said.

"It's burned on three different days," Biel said from the hillside ranch Monday, looking out across the blackened ridges across from their property. "The threat keeps coming back."

She and her husband, whose family homesteaded more than 6,000 acres a century ago, are sleeping in their boots and jeans every night.

"We're on a mission that I gotta give it everything I got," Mark Biel, 64, said.

A few miles up the road just across the Alameda County line, rancher Erich Metzger stayed up all night fighting the fire that roared down onto his property last Wednesday while his wife, Cathi, who had evacuated, called for help. He was just about to give up when Cal Fire crews arrived and helped save the home they built from scratch. The next day, the fire jumped two ravines behind his house in less than an hour. He's been up every night since, putting out spot fires and rescuing neighbors dogs and a litter of kittens.

"It's a scary thing when you look down into the face of a fire," said Metzger, 57, whose wife has since rejoined him at their Avalon Ranch.

"It's been a long week. Ever since that first lightning bolt, we haven't slept much."

They're also worried about Schultz, who has burns over 75% of his body, and Shelton, who is burned over 35% of his.

They know Schultz the best. He delivered the mail on this rural route each Tuesday and Friday with his dog Blue in the back seat _ a Catahoula cattle dog that's also good for pig hunting. As a contractor, Schultz picked up where the U.S. Postal Service left off, around mile marker 11 on Mines Road. He also had worked as a cook at "The Junction" roadhouse, the only business for miles.

"He's one of those guys everybody knows," Cathi Metzger said, "He's a sweet guy and he would hate me calling him sweet."

Schultz, 32, and Shelton, 22, became best friends after Schultz's mother died about six years ago. Schultz also became close with Shelton's mom, Karla, whose last name is Schultz, but in an irony, isn't related to James Schultz. They consider each other mother and son anyway, and James Schultz moved into a trailer on the 88 acres that used to be an ostrich farm, not far from Patterson in the Central Valley.

The two men didn't intend to fight the fire. They were just setting up sprinklers on outbuildings and trailers so they might have something to come home to.

"They had no intention of being hero firefighters. They just wanted to save valuable stuff and get off the property," said Steven Nelsen, 36, who is Shelton's older brother.

But when the wind shifted, the fires that had been on the upper hillside came roaring toward the two, Nelsen said. Shelton jumped in his truck, but with his window open, his hair and beard caught fire. The smoke was so thick, he crashed the truck into a tree stump. Schultz pulled up behind him, and as his own truck caught fire, he jumped out and ran through the flames to try to rescue Shelton. But when the door wouldn't open, Schultz, in flames, fell to the ground. Shelton managed to get out the passenger door and after hugging Schultz to smother the flames, he dragged him to a water tank and doused them both.

In the only vehicle left on the property _ a $400 Ford Explorer for which Shelton needed to hook up a battery with a rusty wrench and burned hands _ the two headed out the driveway until they came upon Cal Fire crews up the road.

"They might not be blood brothers, but they're brothers," Nelsen said. "Who does that for someone you don't care about?"

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WANT TO HELP?

Neighbors have set up two GoFoundMe accounts for the fire victims:

https://www.gofundme.com/f/james-schultz-scu-fire-burn-medical-fund

https://www.gofundme.com/f/for-tom-and-karla

Erich Metzger uses binoculars to look southeast while standing on a hill near his home on Mines Road near Callahan Gulch in Alameda County, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group/San Jose Mercury News/TNS)