The driver of the dusty pickup slowed and lowered his window, reached out and carefully lifted the steel cable that hovered over the dirt road and was connected to a derelict electrical pole on the shoulder, blocking his exit from this burnt-out hamlet of Auberry.
The driver, who refused to give his name because he was in an evacuated area of the massive creek fire in the Sierra, had two passengers – a local firefighter who used his connections to give everyone access to the area, and also refused to give his name to name and resident Mark Van Aacken. The fire burned more than 160,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of structures.
Together, the trios examined the damage to their town along Shaver Springs Road on Tollhouse Road and passed on what they had found in suspension since the evacuation to their fearful neighbors. They weren't sure if their lives would go on normally after the roads opened, or if they needed to be rebuilt from the ashes.
It is an act of bittersweet generosity that mountain people across California do for one another each year as the information that has grown over the years about back roads and relationships with neighbors with access pays off when official government decrees wait.
"We have resources, we know everyone," said the driver.
For Van Aacken, Wednesday's access deepened the pain he felt Tuesday night when a firefighter showed him a photo of his burned down house.
"But a picture still doesn't seem to do it justice," said 40-year-old Van Aacken. “Seeing it firsthand is a different situation. I'm kind of stunned that my wife isn't with me right now to see it. "
Van Aacken and his wife moved to Auberry from Arizona almost four years ago to be closer to the local family and to settle down and raise their seven-year-old twin daughters in the great outdoors.
"It was great to ride four wheels all the time … just being out in the city," he said. "It's always like camping, it's the little town you know?"
The family has been watching the state arson last month and knew their area was in danger. As a result, they were evacuated as soon as the Fresno District Sheriff's MPs knocked on their door and told them to leave.
"I feel like we've got away with it every year," said Van Aacken, referring to the annual fire risk. "I feel like we were a little relaxed about every little fire that came up falling on it so [many resources] that we never thought it would be such a big problem."
Then he caught himself and said, "Granted, it seemed like this every year," Maybe this year is the year, you know? But …"
Only uphill and across from Van Aacken’s house was his father’s house on Wednesday. His brother's house was lost in another area of the forest.
"We were just hoping that at least one of the houses was still standing," he said.
For the other two men in the truck with Van Aacken, the day was an emotional rollercoaster ride.
"Ups and downs, a victory and then complete devastation," said the driver.
The driver's second passenger, the local firefighter, helped relay information to the neighbors.
"We came here because we didn't know," said the firefighter. The crews have guessed where there have been successes and failures and relayed that information to him, but no one has shown photos to prove it, he said.
"I won't hear other people's words," he said. “A lot of our neighbors had no idea so we came here like, 'Hey, we're all going to check out' and we're going to say to everyone in town, 'Hey man, your house is gone. It is not yours. "
The men had already brought news to at least two other residents that their houses had disappeared when they left the area with Van Aacken in the truck.
"I've already told them because they want to know as soon as you find out," said the firefighter. "Of course they're super upset, but they wanted to know … it's worse to wait."
"That's the worst," said Van Aacken approvingly. "Once you know, you can start making decisions about what to do next."