India Saude McDonald

India Saude McDonald| Pine Ridge


Growing up in the mountains is the best.  We climbed high up into the treetops, built forts, rode motorcycles to friends’ houses taking the backroads, collected and dried flowers, played at the lake for entire days, had intensely fast and steep sledding hills and appreciated feeling the seasons. It also meant that there was an ever present and very rational fear of forest fires. 

My first life-changing fire was in 1986.  I was nine years old.  My mother, my brother and I were in Fresno making a shopping trip.  As we were driving back home to Alder Springs, we could see a gigantic smoke cloud. We made plans for what to grab expecting to get home before being evacuated.  Our hearts took a massive hit when we got to the top of the Four Lane and Auberry Road was closed. Despite my mother’s most valiant pleading, they would not let us through. We talked about all the backroads that we could possibly use to sneak in and get to our house, but decided against doing that.  The thought of not being able to get our pets out was so painful.  A friend eventually was able to get in and rescued our pets while we stayed evacuated. Alder Springs survived that fire.  But, that intense worry of not being able to get home to grab just a few precious things and all the animals we adored really stuck.

Labor Day 2020 was a chance to spend the weekend riding mountain bikes at Mammoth Mountain. It was nice to be able to travel and be outdoors for a change, after trying so hard to be careful and isolate through the middle of the COVID pandemic.  Everyone saw the picture of the little plume of smoke on social media.  I largely discounted it–it was close to Camp Sierra and there would be easily accessible roads for trucks to get to it. Surely with the town of Big Creek so obviously in its potential path, it would be easily and quickly extinguished.  

We stayed in Mammoth and rode bikes.  Then, on the afternoon of September 5th, a massive dark cloud of smoke rolled ominously over the mountain.  I wanted to go home then because I knew the sense of panic.  Nonetheless, we decided to stay one more night and drive home early Sunday morning.  

Mammoth is typically a five-hour drive over Tioga Pass, but it is only a twenty-one minute flight from Fresno airport to Mammoth Lakes airport.  In other words, the East side of the Sierras isn’t that far from home as the crow flies.  But we were driving home.   There was a lot of traffic on a notoriously busy holiday weekend through Yosemite. People from all over came to the mountains to camp, because many of the other vacation options had been unavailable, and were now also leaving the mountains.  And, the normal roads through North Fork to home were now closed…  We considered taking Highway 108 over Sonora Pass but that would take an extra 2-3 hours. So we took our chances at Tioga…  We didn’t have a reservation to pass through and our Auberry zip code wasn’t on the list of local zip codes that could pass through without a reservation.  Luckily the Park Ranger gave us a courtesy pass at the East side entrance when we explained how close the fire was to home and that we were likely to get evacuated soon.  I’m grateful for that kindness. 

The drive home was slow and the smoke was thick and forbidding through Yosemite valley. In Oakhurst the smoke thickened and made it so that the headlights on cars turned on automatically, sensing the darkness.  It was snowing ash.

Traffic came to a complete stop on Highway 41 below Coarsegold, well before the Highway 41 and 145 crossing that we needed to turn off on.  Highway 41 was the only way out and everybody was getting out.  Sitting in traffic with the pressing urgency to get home was beyond frustrating.  It was that same feeling of panic about not being able to get home in time to save anything, especially the animals.

We made it to our home with a few hours to pack and shuttle vehicles to park at my Uncle Norman’s house in Tollhouse.  We took pictures of what we left behind.  It is a weird evaluation that takes place in one’s mind when deciding what to pack and what to leave behind.  In retrospect we took very little.  We knew the sheriffs were coming to serve the mandatory evacuations that night and we left our little house on top of the hill on Tollhouse grade.  

Years before, my husband Steve McDonald purchased a large amount of used yellow firehose.  I question many of his purchases, but can really appreciate this now.  He left it attached to our water storage tank with a fire pump.  

That night we stayed with my in-laws Steven and Mikki McDonald in Sanger. They, too, were anxiously watching the fire as it approached the family’s cherished “Shaver Ranch” on Highway 168.  They had been successful in removing some of the historically valuable items from the Shaver Ranch but, like many, didn’t expect the fire to do what it did and so didn’t take as many items as we now wish.   The Shaver Ranch did not survive the fire.

 The Shaver Ranch is deep with history.  There was a post office, a blacksmith shop, a Victorian hotel at one time, an old three-hole golf course, among other things.  The property came through the family from C.B. Shaver and his daughter Lena and then on to Doug McDonald, my husband’s grandfather.  The property was used for big family events, family reunions, every major holiday, even for making apple cider from prohibition apple trees.  My sister in-law Jakki and her husband Jason Pucheu got engaged there.  Steve and I were married there by the meadow.  Cattle grazed there in the summer.  The family had a special tradition of getting a very tall Christmas tree by topping a tree (so that it could grow back) and then using a system of ropes to lower it onto a truck. 

The property is one of the most beautiful spots in all of the Sierra’s.  I absolutely loved living there.  If you were lucky enough to visit there, you know.  Actually, if you were just driving by, you could see the beauty.  The loss of the Shaver Ranch, the house, the trees, the history is the hardest.  Memories survive.

I’ve never thought of myself as being dependent on, or spending too much time on, social media or my phone in general.  During the fire I think we all were glued to whatever source of information we could get.  Information coming out was accurate, inaccurate, implausible, disheartening, celebratory.  It didn’t matter, I felt like we all needed constant updates and news.  I saw a photo of the fire after it had come up out of Jose Basin and had destroyed Pine Ridge.  The fire  was starting to make its way the next day towards the Four Lane and down towards Linson Lane. I was positive our little house on the hill wouldn’t make it. The whole hill was covered in smoke.  

Then frantic phone calls came in to both myself and to my husband, Steve.  Sahara Saude-Bigelow was calling me and her husband, Frank Bigelow was calling Steve.  Frank works for CDF and was driving his work truck (not a water tender, just a regular truck) and decided to go by our house.  A McDonald family friend, Jose Rivera, who works for Fresno PD was patrolling the area for suspicious activity and decided to check in on our place.  They both arrived at the same time and saw that the flames were licking the shop!  A flare up of manzanita had created a hot spot.  Steve told Frank over the phone about the firehose hooked up to the water tank and the fire pump he left there.  Frank and Jose were able to put out the hot spot.  They saved our place.  I don’t know how to thank them, other than by saying “THANK YOU” in this story. As a result of this experience, I also am less inclined to be skeptical of the stuff my husband purchases. 

After the fire moved past our home but we were all still evacuated, we decided to spend some time with my family. We traveled to visit my mom– who was also evacuated and staying in Marin–with my brother and his family.  We, of course, rode mountain bikes there and then at Northstar in Tahoe. We had our cat and dog in the travel van with us. I think they thought it was an adventure.

It seems like within just a few days Sierra Unified, where I teach, was already working to locate every family and ensure their safety.  It was the incredible work of the entire #Mountain Strong community, but I know personally that Alan Harris, Sean Osterberg and Melissa Rodriguez did what was still seemingly impossible.  They (the district) got hot spots, chromebooks, internet, and/or places to stay for every kid in our district.  EIGHTY percent of the student population was evacuated yet we were back to online learning within days.  

One of the bright spots in a very sad story has to be about my best friend Allyson Brooks and her family.  I grew up in the house next door to her in Alder Springs. Alder Springs didn’t make it out of the fire this time.  She lost so much: her home, her parent’s home and her father’s architectural office.  Just a year before, her father, Bob Brooks, the locally-famous architect and internationally-renowned cyclist had passed away.  The memories of her dad were embedded in that Alder Springs property.  The thoughts of rebuilding in Alder Springs were hopelessly gone. Then one of the first houses her father designed that was built up here came on the market and they bought it.  I can’t explain how fortunate and grateful she and her family are to live in that house now and to have that memory of her dad.

After the fire, I think that deciding whether or not to rebuild has been a tough choice for people.   The McDonald’s are making progress towards rebuilding Shaver Ranch.  Steve has helped a number of friends with installing power poles, digging foundations, and helping in the construction of homes for those who are rebuilding.  Some people are already celebrating moving into their newly built homes. Others here have chosen not to rebuild– I can understand those decisions too.

There is a difficult-to-describe emotion one feels, when there is no rationalizing why some homes burned and others didn’t.  I can’t give a precise account of the feeling I feel about why our house is here.  I’d gladly exchange my little house for someone else’s to have survived.  Someone called it “survivor’s remorse,”  I guess that comes kind of close.    

With the creation of the Central Sierra Resiliency Fund, another bright spot has been this agency that is associated with the Museum of the Sierra in Shaver.  The Fund was created by and is led today by an incredible group of people.  With their help, 46,000 trees have been replanted on the mountain so far. This storyteller’s effort to remember our experiences is underway.   I’m so proud of their work.

Because of the Creek Fire the forest is forever changed.  So are we all.