Peter Arroyo

The Creek Fire started at 5:30 in the evening on September 4th at Camp Sierra.

The morning of September 5th was already blistering its way into the oppressive heat that was to be all consuming for the Labor Day weekend. My wife, Ari, and I started out in our routine of coffee and news. We heard about the fire on the news but no one thought that it would come down to Cressman Road. We each knew there were things we wanted to accomplish so by 9:00 am we both went at it. I prepared myself with all the safety gear to collect 16” rounds of oak, cedar, ponderosa and sugar pine. These old trees had been ravaged by the drought and the secondary punch -beetles. It was time to turn them into a source of heat for the winter months soon approaching. At 10:00 am I looked up at the sky to see ominous clouds in the distance that were signaling that something was wrong, terribly wrong. I even mentioned it to Ari, as we went about our business. As the day progressed, we kept hearing rumblings about the fire. We kept on as usual but as the news feeds started spreading, we knew this was getting very serious, but still, we were not too worried.

The following morning, Sunday, September 6th, our mountain life was interrupted when evacuation orders were issued for most of the mountain as the fire was headed our way. Instinctively, Ari and I turned to evacuation mode and prepared the cats and mother-in-law, not necessarily in that order, to leave the mountain, our home. A place we so love and which we knew would shelter us as we grew older. We got our five cats in carriers and put them in the car with my mother-in-law to go to the temporary evacuation site. There was confusion as to where she was to go and she ended up going in circles, finally ending up waiting for news at Clovis Community College. Realizing later that day that she could not come home, we directed her to a hotel, and to drop off our cats at Elaine’s Pet Resort in Fresno. In taking in our precious fur babies at the last minute, Elaine’s showed us a kindness we were not prepared to receive and gave us strength to go back in and do what we so dutifully trained for. And so, Ari and I stayed behind as firefighters and engineer.

On Monday September 7, 2020, we were stapling posters at the entrance to each home indicating whether a resident had evacuated to aid the sheriff’s department. One never knows how much land is around until you are forced to make that loop, we call Pine Ridge that intertwines with Cressman Road, Upper and Lower Cressman Road and Glenwood. These roads all lead to people’s homes, places of neighborly affection, endearment and friendship.

As the few remaining in the neighborhood, Ari, took time to walk and video the surroundings with the thought of possibly losing everything, as her voice cracked on video stating what we all felt inside, but did not want to say out loud. I held it all inside, as I knew this was not a moment for weakness. That would come much later during dinner a few days into the fight. We waived goodbye to Joe and Curt and were the last to leave. On the way out of Cressman Road it was eerie – so desolate and barren of neighbors, of life.

The fire took out our community that night and no one was allowed up or down the mountain until Wednesday morning, September 9th. The ride up the four lane of the 168 on Wednesday morning opened our eyes to the devastation of what a raging fire can do. Our local neighborhood store, Cressman’s, was now a skeletal depiction of the memories that made it the place to go. The landscape was barren of what was once a mighty sight of trees, mountain landscapes and clouds. What once stood as a staple of nature was replaced with smoke and smaller fires still unable to let go of the mountain. Evidence that fire is stronger than one can imagine. My story intertwines with Ari’s detailed version as we were inseparable then and still are. So as the story line follows in chapters so must this one.
This is the preface to the beginning of an amazing journey we took as first responders with the training that we thought we would never use. We never thought our neighborhood and surrounding communities would be victims of such devastation as that caused by the Creek Fire, so read on to Ari’s story and delve into the strength, resiliency and hope within ourselves, within our neighbors and of complete strangers who came together to rebuild and hold us up until we could do it on our own.