Howard V. Hendrix

Howard Hendrix | Pine Ridge


Due to the ferocity of the Creek Fire, my wife Laurel and I are now displaced persons staying in a motel in Fresno. On Sunday, September 6, we were ordered to evacuate from our house in the Pine Ridge community, just south of Shaver Lake. We were out by one in the afternoon, leaving behind our home amid its twelve acres of pine, oak, and cedar forest – at that time all still properly green.

Sunday through Tuesday were full of conflicting reports of fire behavior: high hopes that the fire would spare the home we had built and lived in for fifteen years, and grave fears that our place would burn down to ashes, rubble, stem wall, and slab.

On Tuesday September 8 we learned that the much-feared latter possibility had in fact come to pass. Our house full of home was no more. Despite the herculean efforts of CalFIRE, the US Forest Service, Cal OES, local volunteer fire departments, and myriad other agencies, the strong majority of homes and structures in our unique and much-loved community were destroyed when an avalanche of flame poured through the forest of Pine Ridge overnight Monday.

We take solace in the fact that everyone in our tract got out unhurt. Laurel and I still have each other, our important documents, our old dog and young cats. Our regrets are also eased somewhat by the fact that in our community we had done all we were supposed to do, and more. With help from the Highway 168 Fire Safe Council and CalFire, we had over the previous twenty years put in firebreaks, taken down standing dead trees and, with help from the Sierra Resource Conservation District, had begun removing the remaining log decks of those dead trees.

Our community prided itself on its long tradition of effort aimed at reducing and mitigating fire hazards. We knew there was a risk to our living in the mountains and we took many steps to lessen that risk. Yet the Creek Fire was so extreme that it overwhelmed all our defenses.

Perhaps in the back of our minds we believed that the wildfires we knew were coming would somehow always be someone else’s catastrophe, not our own. Even when Laurel and I were evacuating from our neighborhood, we assumed that our place would be safe and we would be able to return to our home and our normal life. Instead we have suffered loss upon loss and are sick at heart over what has happened.

In our case, insurance has helped a great deal, but it can never replace all that was lost. The particular things our house held within it are too numerous to describe here, and perhaps only insurance adjusters would want that description in minute detail. Outside the house, our old pickup truck, wood splitter, tool shed, well house, and wood shed — with its cords of summer’s split logs that would not wait for winter and woodstove to burst into flame — are all in ashes or twisted metal.

The adjusters will not be so readily able to quantify many other items. Here once stood the birdfeeders and birdbaths, visited by Steller’s jays, juncos, grosbeaks, finches, tanagers, quail, nuthatches. Here stood the red maples we planted for fall color. Here, planted for their white blossoms, stood the Rose of Sharon bush, and the Carpenteria, endemic to our watershed alone in all the world. Here stood the raspberries, huckleberries, gooseberries and currants, planted for their sweetness. Here stood the daffodils, peonies, yarrow, and penstemon, planted to surprise us with their return each spring. Here stood the blue acres of self-sown wild meadow lupines, waving goodbye.

The fire expelled us from the mountains into the valley, where the pressures and necessities of masking up and dealing with Covid-19 are much more in our faces than was the case in our small rural community. Nonetheless, beyond questions of beetle-killed trees, forest management issues, overstretched firefighting resources, drought, and climate change writ large, the Creek Fire is, like the coronavirus pandemic, distinctly a Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) problem, in firefighter parlance.

Our wildfires and pandemics are, paradoxically, driven by our success as a species – by the pressure our ever-growing human population puts on wild environments, not only by proximity and intermixing but also by the exchanging of less-obvious properties (viral RNA and carbon footprint, say) between the “natural” and the “technological” spheres.

By living in the interface, we were part of the problem – and all the world is, ultimately, in the interface. We cannot truthfully say “We have lost everything” so long as we are still around to say those words. In that lies the hope that we still have time to learn, and to change.