Christina Pasillas 5-15-21 10:00 AM
Oral Interview with CSRF Volunteer Lisa Monteiro
I was living in Alder Springs with my two small children which is located in Auberry, California at the time of the Creek Fire. I had been in the home since 2019. When I first saw this small little home with a beautiful view I knew it was the one and I had to buy it. I wanted to live in a place that was beautiful and that could give me peace and quiet.
My family and I spent a lot of time there, especially once the pandemic fell upon our County in March 2020. I was able to work from home. My children were doing their school work online. During our lunch hours we did crafts and I would always have the children paint the scenery because it was so beautiful. I loved to get up every morning and sit outside to sip on my cup of coffee. At sundown I would like to watch the bats fly around.
During the Labor Day weekend of 2020, myself and some friends had a spot reserved at Vermillion Campground by Edison Lake. Once the reservations opened up we booked. The Chacons, Evans and Pasillas families which was a total of 5 adults and 10 children. We had a wonderful time camping enjoying the campfire and eating s’mores on Friday night. On Saturday we decided to rent fishing boats and go across Edison Lake to look at the big stumps and the forest on the other side. We had never been there so we wanted to do some exploring. When we were crossing the lake with the kids I noticed that across the ridgeline there was smoke. I said, “Oh no, there is a fire and I wonder where it is at?” It looked small but as we were going across the lake I could see it getting bigger. As we were exploring it started to get late and I told the others that it was best if we head back because the sky was getting filled with smoke. “This is not good,” I thought. When we got back to the other side and back to the campground it was really smoky. I said, “I don’t know what we should do. Somebody needs to tell us what is going on and what we should do.” We decided to continue camping. I’ve been camping all over the place my whole life but I want to tell you that this night was the scariest ever. The bears were out of control in the night and were banging on everything. The dogs of the other campers would not stop barking. I have never heard bears so active in my life. I was so scared and I didn’t know what to do. I tried to calm my kids down because they were panicking I told them that it was going to be okay, the bears are not going to bother us, it’s probably just the smoke. My daughter was shaking next to me and my son was on the other side and vomited on his sleeping back. They were so scared. I didn’t want the bears to smell the vomit so I threw the sleeping bag out of the tent as far as it would go.
The next day in the morning, which was Sunday, my friend wanted to go on a hike to the Devil’s Bathtub which was on his bucket list. After breakfast I told him, “I don’t think you should go” and he said, “This is why we came up here” and I said, “You know it’s getting pretty smoky and it’s an all day hike and if we get evacuated I’m going have to leave because we have to stay safe.” I also jokingly said, “If they make us leave I’ll leave you a note”! He left on the hike so my other friend and I decided to take the kids over to Vermillion Valley Resort. We knew they had a TV there where we could see the news. We took our sweet time taking showers and went into the store to get the kids snacks then we noticed an evacuation order sign! I told my friend to use the satellite phone in the store to notify her parents and my children’s dad that we are getting evacuated since we did not have cell phone service. I wanted someone to know that we were ok.
We then head back to the campground and everyone is already gone. My heart dropped and I was like, “Oh my God, this is serious.” The host walks up to us and tells us, “We have been issued an evacuation order.”, and I’m like, “Oh my goodness, my friend and his two boys went off on a hike, how could I find them?” The host said, “Well, you guys just need to go now”. So I and the others in my group packed up our stuff quickly and threw everything in the vehicles. I left a note. I wrote, “I have to get who I can out. I’m sorry I have to leave but as soon as you get back to this tent you need to leave. I left, water and snacks. The host has extra gas if you need it. Once you come back, just leave, because everyone’s evacuated”. I didn’t know what else to do; there was no way for me to go look for him. As we are leaving and we’re driving down the road and two lady hikers jumped in front of my truck. I stopped. All I heard was “Help!”, and I asked, “What’s going on?” and one said, “My friend is having an asthma attack, I need help. Can you take us back to the resort, we can get help there? I told my friend in the car behind me that we have to turn back, we have to help this lady, and we can’t just say no and leave. One got in her car and the other in my truck. Then two more hikers come out of the brush as we are turning around. I have them jump in the back of my truck. It was probably about a mile or two back we dropped them all off. I told the lady, “I hope you guys can get help here, but we have to go”.
On the way down there is no cell phone service at all. The air is smoky and we had no clue where the fire was coming from. We then get to Mono Hot Springs and everybody there was evacuated, gone. There was no one around at all and I’m thinking to myself, “Are we like the last ones to get notified here”! I was so nervous, my friend was nervous but we kept trying to remain calm for all the kids we had with us. We decide to take a bathroom break and a quick mental break because we were having a lot of anxiety driving. After a short break we continued down the mountain. I told my kids, “I’m driving, and this road is just one way down, it’s skinny and bumpy and you guys need to look around for fire because I can’t focus on what’s around I need to focus on the road. After a long while we made it to China Peak and the Sheriffs were there with a road block. The sky was red and it was super smoky. They directed us to park in the small parking lot across the way. They told us to park and wait we couldn’t go any further because the fire is by the road at Shaver. The parking lot was full of vehicles. I looked at my friend and she looked at me, we were very worried. Our other friend took longer to come down from the mountain because she wanted to wait for her brother to come back from hiking but she eventually decided to evacuate. I was happy to see her family. As we all continued to wait the Sheriff announced that they were going to move us to the big parking lot and told us to park in the middle of the parking lot. My friend and I looked at each other like, “Did we just come to our death?” We had been so high up in the mountains before which seem to be safer at this point.
As we waited in the big parking lot, I looked at my friend and said, “This is not good, there’s fire all around us, the sky is red! It was daytime but the sky was so dark it looked like night. We were extremely terrified but had to remain calm for the children. The Sheriff notified us that we would be here for a few hours to just relax and to go ahead and feed the kids. Then after a short time the Sheriff announces that they need us all to line up because they want us to write our names down. I looked at my friend and told her, “if they want us to line up, they don’t want to tell us what’s going on and they want us to put our names on a list, we are going to die! Oh my God! We’re not going to make it out of here”. All the children were so scared. I’ve learned a lot about emergency situations over the years so in that moment I felt like once you’re on a list, the Sheriff will take a photo of the list, so it is submitted so they know who died in the fire for their records! After everyone in the parking wrote their names down the Sheriff announced, “OK, we’re going to have a helicopter come in and take you guys out.” My thoughts then switched to, ”We are in the middle of this parking lot with fire all around us, “Can they really just come in and pull us all out”! I know material things don’t matter but I told my friends, “take a picture of your truck license plate, anything you have in your vehicle, your registration because it is all going to burn, you need it for your insurance, we’re not going take any of this with us if the helicopter comes.”
We then continued to wait and wait we were all very scared filled with anxiety not only because of the fire and the ash falling on us but because we were going to have to ride in a helicopter. Then all of a sudden the Sheriff announces, “there’s a break in the fire, get in your vehicles, we’re going to guide you through it right now”. I looked at my two friends and said, “Let them all go first”! Let’s be the last ones because if the fire is on the road you need to be able to turn around. So we waited until all the other vehicles went through and waited towards the end to leave. I’m in straight survival mode. Our phones still didn’t work at China Peak, we couldn’t call our families. I did not want to die that day.
As we drive down and pass the lake there is fire on the left side and fire on the right side, and my kids are yelling, “Mom, the power poles are on fire! Mom, look at that tree, it’s on fire!” I just keep telling them, “As long as it doesn’t fall on us were going to be ok, just pray. Let’s just get through this”. There were cows in the road following the cars trying to get out. I thought to myself, “I’ve been through Shaver so many times in my lifetime, this is so unreal. This is horrible; I hope all this doesn’t burn. I was so panicked I just wanted to get through it and out. As soon as I got a halfway past the lake my phone starts ringing off the hook. Family, friends and co-workers trying to get a hold of me to make sure I was ok. After we got through Shaver, we are supposed to be heading straight to Fresno on the 168. My friends headed straight down but I felt I had to stop at my house. After I passed Cressman’s coming down the hill I made a right towards Alder Springs. I had only one important bin that had birth certificates and important paperwork that I had to grab. I knew if I lost that it was going to be hard to get all that again.
I didn’t see any of my neighbors as I arrived so I figured they had been evacuated. I could see the smoke coming up in the back so I snapped a quick photo of my house. As I ran in my house, it already smelled heavily of smoke. I thought to myself, “I’m just getting this bin, my truck is full of camping stuff, I can’t fit anything, and nothing else matters right now. I don’t think it will burn! Then I said to myself, “Okay, let’s go. And hopefully, everything’s going to be okay”.
When I got to Fresno I went to my friend’s house that was camping with me. We were so worried about my friend and his kids, the one that went hiking. We kept watching the news, we kept checking social media, and we wanted to make sure they were okay. We wanted to make sure that they hadn’t been burned in the fire. We felt bad because you never leave one behind. We were so stressed out until someone finally posted a picture of who was stuck at Vermillion Valley Resort. We saw him and his two kids and we were so happy that they were okay. They had to be rescued by helicopter and there were moments where we thought they’d get lifted out and then the smoke would change or the wind and they would cancel the rescue. We waited at the airport on the helicopter to show up. It was the worst feeling ever when an attempted rescue is a fail. They went through their own traumatic event because they had to be evacuated in a helicopter, and that was really back and forth. We were worried about them, but they eventually got out safe.
I prayed that my house didn’t burn. Watching the news and scanning social media daily was stressful. Then one day one of the newscasters was driving through my neighborhood and did a small clip. I could see where my house should have been, but it wasn’t there anymore. I cried and cried. I was literally in shock for a month. I didn’t know what to do. I stayed with my best friend with my kids. We slept on the couch, and then I had to rethink my life. We didn’t have clothes, shoes, nothing but my camping gear and few changes of clothing because we were camping. When everything in your house burns and your house, you honestly have no clue what to do. You’re floating and lost. It’s one of the hardest things in life that I have had to go through. I bought that home and worked very hard to fix it up because that is where I wanted to retire. My kids were happy there and I was happy there. After a fire and the wait before you can go back to your property was very hard. When they tell you that you can go look at your property and see what you can recover but there’s nothing there. The granite countertops and fireplace, crumbled. There’s not one thing that is salvageable, nothing. I just had no words. The whole Alder Springs neighborhood was all gone but one home.
My best friend, Erin, has helped me through all this and guided me while I was in shock and lost. My friend Mario came over and said, “Get in the car I’m taking you to buy whatever you need for yourself and the kids”. I honestly didn’t know what to choose still in shock. I kept saying I don’t know, I just don’t know. My friends and co-workers came together and donated clothes, gift cards. My kid’s school donated. My family and the whole community donated. The Red Cross helped me with temporary Hotels to live in. I didn’t know how much love there was in this world. I feel like everyone gave me everything back and double of what I had before. It’s so nice of everyone and it’s been really overwhelming. I did not know how many people loved me and my kids. It hurts my heart to hear other stories from other families because I know how they feel.
Now that my property has been cleaned and all that debris is gone, I’m hopeful now, you know. I take drives out there to remind myself not to give up. I feel that there’s hope. I’m going to rebuild even though there are no trees around my property. I still want that space on earth; I still want to retire there.