Opening for the season May 5, 2023. Spring hours: Friday-Sunday 11-3
Ann Walzberg| Camp Sierra
The Night the Fire Started
Camp Sierra is less than a mile up canyon from where the Creek Fire started.
At the time I was the President of the Camp Sierra Conference Association which runs a nonprofit group camp. At the time, the camp was surrounded by 71 private cabins in the Sierra National Forest.
During COVID some of the private cabin owners had social distance happy hours on cabin decks or parking areas. That afternoon at 5 pm the happy hour started at a cabin that overlooked the canyon. Just before 5:30 we saw smoke at the bottom of the canyon a little to the west. The smoke area remained the same size as we watched a helicopter unload two water dumps and a plane drop two loads of fire retardant.
During this time multiple fire trucks drove into Camp Sierra with sirens. Since the camp had five cabins rented, I went down to the Conference Grounds to see how I could help and check on our campers. Multiple fire engines from Cal Fire, the Sierra National Forest Service and the Shaver Lake Volunteer Fire Department, along with two Fresno County Sheriff Deputy cars staged on the Conference Grounds parking lot. There were approximately eight fire trucks and crews waiting to try to save our little community if needed.
Over the daylight hours the emergency responders kept in frequent contact with the firefighters at the fire scene. They reported that the fire was remaining at three to five acres and were hopeful that it might be contained. The mood of everyone lightened but the firefighters reminded me that you can’t tell what a fire is going to do. They would remain all night just in case they were needed.
I opened the Camp Store and some cabins to provide access to bathrooms and a place to rest. Everyone who wanted was treated to ice cream cones and bottles of water. We all remained watchful and hopeful. The on-site incident management crew prepared to protect Camp Sierra. Multiple private cabin owners came to the parking lot to get updates and our campers were kept informed.
When dark came, the wind started to pick up. I wasn’t watching the time, but someone noticed an orange glow in the direction of the fire that wasn’t visible before. The incident commander contacted the firefighters at the fire and learned the fire had just jumped with the wind and the fire was rapidly heading up the canyon.
The evacuation order came immediately, without even time for an evacuation warning. The fire was moving quickly up the canyon wall with all of the bark beetle killed ponderosa pines and drought conditions. Anyone in the mountains fears exactly what was now happening.
A sheriff’s deputy and I went to each of our camper cabins to get them evacuated. Then my husband and I went to our private cabin to load up our things to evacuate. Every minute showed the night sky turning lighter and lighter with glowing orange. It was pretty scary. The only thing we could think about was how to get out before the fire reached us. We only took time to grab our family albums and pictures, some clothes, computers and a few other personal items.
By the time we left at 12:20 am we were the last cabin owners to leave. The fire had already jumped the Huntington Lake Road to Shaver Lake. We had to leave the back way through Big Creek and Huntington Lake. Driving up to Huntington Lake, at every switchback, we saw the fire getting bigger and bigger. We had little hope that we would ever see our cabin or Camp Sierra again.
After the fire passed by Camp Sierra, through the heroic efforts of the firefighters, 67 of 71 cabins survived and the Conference Grounds only lost only an outdoor chapel out of 27 buildings. Close to 20 trucks and crews fought valiantly over three days. Our little community is forever grateful.
Ann Walzberg, Cabin #3 Camp Sierra