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After California fire, a bearded brotherhood mobilizes

| Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, 6:54 p.m.
“The friends I have made, they go beyond ‘Whisker Wars.’ If it wasn’t for them, I’m not sure how this would have gone,” says Aarne Bielefeldt, pictured here getting ready for the Great American Beard & Moustache Championship. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Jay Paul
For The Washington Post
“The friends I have made, they go beyond ‘Whisker Wars.’ If it wasn’t for them, I’m not sure how this would have gone,” says Aarne Bielefeldt, pictured here getting ready for the Great American Beard & Moustache Championship. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Jay Paul
Willi Chevalier, left, and Jack Passion attend the National Beard and Moustache Championships in an episode of 'Whisker Wars.' MUST CREDIT: Karolina Wojtasik, IFC
Willi Chevalier, left, and Jack Passion attend the National Beard and Moustache Championships in an episode of 'Whisker Wars.' MUST CREDIT: Karolina Wojtasik, IFC
Aarne Bielefeldt takes a selfie at his worskhop, which burned down in the Redwood Complex wildfire that swept through the area in October 2017.
Aarne Bielefeldt
Aarne Bielefeldt takes a selfie at his worskhop, which burned down in the Redwood Complex wildfire that swept through the area in October 2017.
Aarne Bielefeldt onstage at the Great American Beard & Moustache Championships in Richmond on Sept. 29. Bielefeldt was featured in the 2011-12 reality show “Whisker Wars.” MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Jay Paul
For The Washington Post
Aarne Bielefeldt onstage at the Great American Beard & Moustache Championships in Richmond on Sept. 29. Bielefeldt was featured in the 2011-12 reality show “Whisker Wars.” MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Jay Paul

After the fire came the men with beards. In twos and threes, they arrived at Aarne Bielefeldt’s home in the woods of Northern California. Bielefeldt’s property had burned down in the Redwood Complex wildfire that swept through the area last October, and the bearded men had come to rebuild it.

Bielefeldt had been on a TV show called “Whisker Wars,” about the world of competitive facial-hair growing. Obscure and short-lived — “Whisker Wars” aired for two brief seasons on IFC in 2011 and 2012 — the show nonetheless changed its stars’ lives. Bielefeldt is uncomfortable with the label “hero.” But since the show, that’s exactly what he’s become to many self-identified “beardsmen.” Aficionados of the mutton chop, the full natural and Fu Manchu, they are a brotherhood of the beard.

They adore Bielefeldt’s. He’s 53 and hasn’t shaved it since his teens. When not styled for competition into his signature “Octobeard” configuration (eight spikes hair-sprayed into submission), it is long and silver and hangs down to his waist.

Bielefeldt, however, is beloved as much for his lifestyle as for his facial hair. A solar-power engineer by trade, German-born Bielefeldt is a wild man in the John Muir mold. He lives “off the grid” in rural Willits, on 120 rugged acres dense with redwoods, pines and tan oaks overlooking Redwood Valley. It was around midnight last Oct. 7 when the trouble began. He and his wife, Rita, awoke to a phone call from emergency services: Evacuate. Now.

Bielefeldt braided his beard, tucked it into his shirt and went outside. Looking down from his hill to the valley floor, he saw burning trees in a full circle beneath him. “It was like a view of all my nightmares together,” he recalls.

For one blessed moment, the fire appeared to die back, and the Bielefeldts settled in to wait and see. Then, the wind shifted. Flames leaped from treetop to treetop, threatening to block the escape routes. Everywhere was the crackling of burning dry wood, punctuated by the jet-engine explosions of propane tanks.

“Don’t walk,” Bielefeldt told his wife. “Run.”

Later, after weeks in a cramped motel, he returned to survey the damage. Charred tree stumps still flickered like candles in the smoke-blue air. Miraculously, the main cabin survived. But the rest was in ruins. Gone was the barn, the workshop, the garage, the biodiesel generator, the old trucks, the vegetable garden. Gone were the little cabins he’d built himself the old-fashioned way — with hand tools and 27 years of sweat equity.

Worse yet: He had no insurance.

“I build this from scratch,” Bielefeldt posted to Facebook. “Years to replace.” Unhappy face.

“Whisker Wars” fans, however, would not sit idly by to watch their elder statesman suffer.

Says Bielefeldt, “Ninety percent of the help I have gotten has come from the facial-hair community.”

The RVA Beard League in Virginia set up a PayPal donation site. Wisconsin’s Brew City Beard Alliance held a beard contest in Bielefeldt’s honor and gave him the proceeds. In England, the Wessex Beardsmen sold T-shirts with a drawing of Bielefeldt’s face on them.

Bartender Mark Beneda, of the Omaha Facial Hair Society, donated a night’s worth of tips.

Billy Braker, of Michigan’s Bearded Sinners club, organized a raffle and sent catnip for Bielefeldt’s cats. Braker had met Bielefeldt only once before, in passing. He watched him regularly, however, on “Whisker Wars.” “He’s obviously an exemplary guy with regard to his character and his beard,” Braker says. “It’s going to be a long road. I’m honored to play even a small part.”

Most of Bielefeldt’s tools perished in the fire. So tools the beardsmen sent. “Within a few weeks, I had five chain saws here,” Bielefeldt recalls. “It became seven at some point.”

Bryan Nelson, a fellow “Whisker Wars” cast member and president of the Austin Facial Hair Club, set up a GoFundMe page. The show changed Nelson’s life, as well. For one, he became good friends with Bielefeldt. They share a similar philosophy: Every man should grow his beard out at least once in his life.

“I don’t understand why someone wouldn’t want to know what they really look like,” Nelson says. “Most men in America are missing out on seeing what they’d look like as a wild man.”

For two, “Whisker Wars” gave Nelson the improbable: a social life centered on his beard. After the show’s run, everyone with a bit of stubble, it seemed, wanted to join or start a beard society. “It just exploded,” recalls Nelson. Hundreds of new beard clubs cropped up, in Chicago, Sacramento, Boston, Orlando, Kansas, Colorado, Maine, Toronto and Sydney.

He and Bielefeldt became beard mentors. Neophytes deluged them with emails asking for advice or grooming tips.

The irony isn’t lost on Nelson: “Whisker Wars” wasn’t renewed for a third season, though it helped create the audience it originally sought.

After “Whisker Wars,” membership in Nelson’s Austin Facial Hair Club grew from four guys to more than a hundred. They meet twice a month, organize charity events and maintain a robust online presence. Naturally, they were among the first to spread the word about Bielefeldt after the fire.

Those who couldn’t donate cash offered emotional support. “Things can be replaced, brother,” one fan wrote on Bielefeldt’s Facebook page. “You guys can’t.”

“We will help you through this,” wrote another.

For months, guys from beard clubs across the country have been driving up to help Bielefeldt rebuild. “Every two weeks, I have two beards show up here with a camper or a trailer,” he says. “They don’t ask for anything. They drive a distance. They say: ‘We don’t need a guest room. We have our own bathroom.’ They spend some days here and help me.”

They fix broken waterlines, repair solar panels, clear debris. They assist Bielefeldt with the gnarliest of the backbreaking tasks. His own back is literally broken; he’s had several spine surgeries over the years.

“They helped me with shoveling here, shoveling there,” he says. “They have taken down endless burned trees.”

Greg Schoenwolf and Jonny Dingo, president and vice president, respectively, of the Salty Saints Social Club & Facial Hair Society in Utah, are two such guys. Eight months after the fire, they drove over with their tents from Salt Lake City. They’d met Bielefeldt a few times before at competitions, but mostly they knew him from watching “Whisker Wars.”

For Schoenwolf and Dingo, the TV show was revelatory. They refer to the 13 episodes of “Whisker Wars” as “the historical documents.” As in, “Whenever anyone in our club has a question, we tell them to refer to the historical documents,” says Schoenwolf. They are only half-joking.

They’ve watched every episode multiple times. “The first ‘Whisker Wars’ episode was so profound to me,” Dingo recalls. “I immediately told my wife, ‘I’m growing my beard out.’ “

“OK,” she said. “But my parents are going to disown you.” (They haven’t yet.)

Now, finally, incredibly, they were at Bielefeldt’s home. “It’s a fairy-tale cottage in the woods,” Schoenwolf describes it. The trees, the stars, the silence — so quiet you could hear bees buzzing in a hive a hundred feet away — were astonishing.

“It’s a dream,” says Dingo. “We want to be up there with him. Live near him. Live by his property. Be forest helpers.”

They spent three days chopping and stacking wood, pounding steel posts into a hill and slicing up water tanks that had liquefied in the fire into pancakes of melted plastic. They rolled a 2,500-gallon water tank down a ravine. “So many scorpions!” recalls Schoenwolf gleefully.

Schoenwolf, a bartender, and Dingo, a teacher, are “very much city people,” and the manual labor was exhausting.

Why did they do it? Schoenwolf: “Aarne’s been a really big inspiration to me.”

“He’s the pillar,” adds Dingo. “He’s the king. But he’s also the first to say: ‘It’s silly. It’s just a beard.’ He’s so humble.”

And partly, they did it for a taste of how a wild man lives.

Tough as it was, working out in the woods was invigorating. They are checking their calendars to see when they can go back. They’ve contemplated building a “bearded compound,” a place for people with beards to live together in harmony.

For Bielefeldt, life will forever be divided into “before and after the fire.” It has left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. Certain kinds of wind conditions or smells trigger a primal fear. “It’s hard to live up there, in the blackened forest,” he admits.

He is thankful for the money — $8,703 from Nelson’s GoFundMe, plus a few thousand more. But when he thinks of the destruction — contractors estimate it will cost $1 million to rebuild — Bielefeldt feels a depression coming on.

So he looks forward to when the volunteer beards come. They help to clear his mind. They keep him from despairing that things will never be put back together.

By day, they work. By night, they cook. “We make a feast,” he says. “Good food. We make nice evenings.” Bielefeldt throws some meat on the grill, though not the deer he’d ordinarily hunt — his stockpile of venison went up in smoke with the freezers, and his rifles melted in the flames.

“I appreciate everything they do,” he says simply. “The friends I have made, they go beyond ‘Whisker Wars.’ If it wasn’t for them, I’m not sure how this would have gone.”

At the British Beard & Moustache Championships in August — his first major competition since the fire — instead of his customary lederhosen, Bielefeldt wore a vest studded with local beard club badges and pins as a tribute.

As for Schoenwolf and Dingo, the “Whisker Wars” fans, they watch Bielefeldt’s body language. When they finished hooking up the water tank, Bielefeldt came out and looked at it. Dingo saw the older man’s eyes well up. “That’s all it took. That’s why we did it. He’d do the same for us.”

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