With the giggling sounds of happy children playing in the background of his Main Street, Quincy Toy Store, owner Matthew Kitchens is smiling and scooping up a generous cone of rich, chocolate ice cream for two local customers who popped in to escape the 95-degree heat on this summer day.
“No, please keep it,” one says, refusing the change and plunking it into a donation jar on top of the counter. “Anything to help the firefighters. We’re so grateful they’re here.”
Kitchens couldn’t agree more.
The cheerful sidewalk sign propped outside his front door colorfully proclaims “Free Ice Cream for All Firefighters!” in charming, irregular letters painted by some of Kitchens’ five children, a niece and a local teen helper. You can’t miss it driving through downtown.
“A friend of mine is working the fire,” Kitchens explained, “and he had — coincidentally — written a hilarious Facebook post about how great our ice cream is. I saw him with a crew, protecting my neighborhood, and I just said, ‘Hey, as long as there is fire on the ground, there is free ice cream for every firefighter. So you guys come in for a scoop while you’re here.’”
The next thing he knew, Kitchens received a generous donation for his free-scoops project from Pastor Matt Warren of Christ the King Episcopal Church. Warren’s congregation was thrilled to have some way to show their appreciation, too.
“From there, it just exploded and now,” Kitchens said, grinning as he handed more frosty, heaping cones over the counter, “we’re working to give away enough free ice cream to use up all of those donations.”
For the transplanted former L.A. post-production editor — who recently left a 16-year TV career to move with his five children and wife, Leah, to her hometown of Quincy — owning a toy store and scooping out 13-percent butterfat ice cream is what he calls the fun part.
“Seriously,” he said, his infectious smile softening for a moment, “I just want to say what I know many people in town are feeling — we are so reassured to have these firefighters here, protecting our town. They have lifted a weight from our community. And ice cream — it’s a simple thing we can do to say how much we appreciate all of them being here.”
Lifting his youngest baby, Ivy, into his arms while putting the scooper away for the night, Kitchens added, “This lets us take a moment to show that we value human beings doing extraordinary things.”
Kitchens and his family business are in good company when it comes to dispensing gratitude.
Outpouring of appreciation
The greater community of Quincy and its surrounding sister towns are all expressing a huge wave of appreciation for the fire personnel who have come from near and far to lend a hand in fighting the Minerva Fire.
Since the flames broke out over Claremont Peak on July 29, many impromptu offers have come from generous townspeople.
Moon’s Restaurant co-owner Lisa Kelly feels for the hundreds of fire personnel working in the current heat wave and at the front lines of the 4,000-acre-plus blaze, under harsh conditions and in steep, rugged terrain.
She and her staff came up with an idea to offer their patio seating — complete with misters going at full blast — as a shady, cool respite space for firefighters to rest and relax after their long hours on the fire line or manning the command center. And while they’re finally taking it a little easy, they’re welcome to an ice-cold lemonade or other beverage — maybe some hors d’oeuvres or a meal.
“We call it our ‘Cold One Fund’ and we’ve had help from a generous local business person who wants to remain anonymous,” Kelly laughed, bustling through her kitchen baking bread and spinning crisp salads for the evening crowd.
Thousands of sandwiches
On the other side of downtown — and perhaps one of the first businesses to feel the impact of hosting the emergency responders — is the Safeway on Main Street. As the emergency response ramped up that first weekend, somebody had to step in and fill the temporary role of providing meals and drinks for all of the firefighters, administrative staff and support personnel who flooded into town to lend their expertise on the Minerva Fire.
So when the first catering order came in just as Safeway Store Assistant Director Meagan Bray was getting off work for the night, she picked up the phone and started pulling employees in from every department — even some who’d gone home — to get started building meals in the deli department.
“We had seven people working continuously in revolving shifts,” Bray said. “One guy even came all the way back from Truckee. It meant some serious overtime. Over three days, we made 3,000 ham, turkey, cheese and roast beef sandwiches — packed them into sack lunches with chips, cookies, and a drink — and had them ready for pickup. I’m proud of my team. It was really something, making meals by the pallet load.”
By the third day of the fire, a catering company was established on site and the Safeway team could relax a bit.
Coffee and muffins
Meanwhile back downtown, entrepreneurs Amy Carey and Susan Ushakoff — owners of Quincy Provisions on Bradley Street — decided that a fast muffin and a latte would be just the ticket to keep up the spirits and energies of many fire teams coming off a long night up in the flaming, smoky ravines. Or for those just getting into town to join the fight. So they put a homemade sign up on their corner and opened the doors with their well-known friendly smiles, same as they do every day. They don’t want any special credit, they said. It’s just the right thing to do and that’s what Quincy is all about.
Over at the Union 76 station, around the corner from the downtown shops, Haley Pettit said she had about 60 firefighters come in on Sunday, July 30, ready to stock up on Gatorade and coffee.
“They had come from all over and they were exhausted,” she recalled. “My boss, Debbie Lewis, had a great idea. She said coffee is free for all fire personnel. They’re tired and this will help them get in and out faster when they’re here.”
For Pettit, seeing the firefighters at her counter really brought home the close proximity of the Minerva fire.
“I live in East Quincy and I have a 1-year-old son,” she said. “I feel very safe with them here and I’m really grateful.”
Outside the gas station on Friday morning — day seven of the fire — stopping for a quick break before they returned to their Oroville-area base with the Plumas National Forest, a hardworking Engine 26 team climbed off their rig looking pretty beat.
“We got called up to work on the lightning strikes close to Beckwourth that started about eight or nine fires over there,” said firefighter Travis Lopes. “It’s all knocked down and we’re heading back.”
They couldn’t help but notice all the thank you signs posted around town.
“It’s really nice to have the support of the community,” Lopes said, smiling and with heads nodding from his entire team. “It feels good. But we don’t feel like heroes. Our biggest reward is getting on scene, working on the progress, seeing the job through to completion and getting the fire controlled and out. Oh, and yeah — we love all the signs on the highway that are made from the school kids’ posters. It’s really cool to see the kids involved in making those fire awareness and safety signs.”
Later on, out at the incident camp in East Quincy where the fire response is being coordinated with expert precision, a few firefighters agreed to a quick interview.
“We’re out here because this is what we do, it’s what we love,” said one firefighter from the Bay Area, gearing up to head out with his team. “Honestly, the gratitude that everyone is showing us is really, really nice — but we don’t want anyone to feel obligated to give us stuff. We are not supposed to accept these kinds of things, but everyone says please, take it. Really, their thanks for us being here is plenty for us.”
When a reporter jokingly asks, “You mean to say you’d do all of this even without the ice cream?” the unanimous, smiling response was “Absolutely.”