If the Wanship fire station was the brain in the battle against the Rockport 5 blaze, a little gas station down the road was the heart.
Rafter B doesn't look like much from exit 155 on Interstate 80, which passes right beside it. There are a couple of gas pumps, a rustic facade and a humming swamp cooler. But in the hours after the Rockport 5 Fire erupted, the station became a bustling gathering point almost a kind of communal living room where newly evacuated neighbors could swap stories and assurances as they watched columns of smoke rise from their community.
Dave and Kim Alderman run the Rafter B station. The couple bought the business with a partner in 2009 after they both spent time working there for other people.
When the Rockport 5 Fire began Tuesday, Rafter B just happened to be the only retail business nearby. Several hundred yards down the street in one direction, police blocked off SR 32 and sent evacuees streaming out of their neighborhoods. In the other direction, those same evacuees gathered at a shelter near the fire command center.
"When this thing first happened," Dave said, "everyone gathered here. It was all brothers and friends at that point."
That made for a chaotic day, with newcomers and regulars descending on the station, all asking around for answers. To make matters even more hectic, the station temporarily lost electricity, prompting Dave to take the day's food to the evacuation shelter before it spoiled.
The fire burned close to the heart for Rafter B when its cook, Chrissy Rasmussen, was the first person to lose her home in the blaze. In the aftermath, the Aldermans and other staff were protective of Rasmussen and her family, saying they were too shocked to speak publicly.
By Wednesday, the station's porch was consistently filled with people sitting, talking and eating Dave's signature pulled pork sandwiches. Many people shared stories about seeing the lightning bolt that sparked the fire, or fleeing flames that rapidly engulfed the neighborhoods. They talked about what they lost a trampoline, a VW van, many propane tanks and how odd it was that the fire skipped some homes but not others. Inside, other people gathered around the cash register to chat as a clerk rung up customers.
It'd be easy to romanticize Rafter B. After a few minutes on the welcoming porch which is furnished with a bench and two old glider chairs it begins to feel more like a conversation-inducing English pub than the typical roadside gas station. Out back, an apple tree drapes over two picnic benches beside a grazing field. And Friday, Dave grilled hamburgers on a patio for hungry customers his goal is to develop Rafter B into a food stop that sells gas rather than the other way around.
The station's role as a gathering place also didn't begin with the fire. Among other community services, the Aldermans receive UPS deliveries for the surrounding neighborhoods. And people have been coming in to chat long before the fire.
Kim initially attributed the station's role as a destination to its location, but after a few minutes conceded that it may also be because she and Dave make it a welcoming place.
"I'm the mean one, he's the nice one," she joked Friday afternoon even as she laughed and referred to customers as "sweet pea."
During the Rockport 5 Fire, Rafter B's role expanded. In addition to a gathering place, the Aldermans began planning a fundraiser for the Rasmussen family and others who lost their homes. Fire officials also posted notices on the doors for people seeking information.
In addition, people in the community began making new connections at the station. Sherri Berntsen of Bridge Hollow didn't really know the Aldermans before the blaze but spent Friday afternoon sitting under the apple tree offering to help Kim with the fundraiser. The two women, barely casual acquaintances before, could have been mistaken for old friends.
"She keeps an eye on things," Berntsen said of Kim. "They're good spirited."
Saturday, Berntsen returned for the Aldermans' fundraiser, which saw a steady trickle of people buying lunch as well as a mountain of clothing donated in black and white trash bags.
Dave described the fire as a tragedy, but also had noticed its impact on Rafter B's and the community. He said old barriers between different segments of the community which has a wide range of income levels were perhaps lessening, people were growing closer.
"This will be a growing experience," he said, "for a diversified area."