James Parr

Stories from James Parr–Chief for Pine Ridge Volunteer Fire Dept. and Assistant Chief for Shaver Lake Volunteer Fire Dept. He is now the chief for both fire departments. 

 

Saturday, Sept 5th  The Sierra National Forest (SNF) and Cal Fire engines were responding to the Creek Fire, and bringing in engines from outside the area. They were trying to get a lid on it, but it was growing massively fast. I think it grew something like 20,000 acres by Saturday night (having only started on Friday). Even air support was hindered by the massive amounts of smoke the growing fire was producing.  On that Saturday morning, the fire was *only* a few hundred acres.  Shaver Lake Volunteer Fire Dept. was on standby at the station, all hands present, on call for anything in the city. 

I saw a friend from the Sheriff’s station, Matt, and he asked for assistance with the evacuation warnings. The two of us got into the patrol and started going door-to-door in the Shaver area, giving everyone the warning notice: Pack up your important stuff now, leave as soon as you can, when/if the “order” comes in you will have to leave immediately and won’t be able to pack then.

I only ran into a single family that didn’t know and didn’t seem to care. Everyone else was either gone, or in the process of packing their cars. Most of the houses had the garage open, the car doors open, and people shuttling boxes into the cars. 

Late afternoon we returned to the station and waited to be called out. I was able to return home to sleep since my neighborhood (Cressman Road) wasn’t threatened yet. I don’t think I was nervous yet. With the number of engines and the air resources, I was pretty sure it would be shut down early. At the very least, the big threat was up-hill from Shaver, and that’s mostly unpopulated. I don’t think I had heard about the massive devastation that had hit Big Creek and Huntington Lake yet.  My first few days memories were kind of trampled by the next two weeks activities, so I hope I’m not missing or mixing my days up.

Sunday, September 6th.   Shaver Lake Volunteer Fire Dept. (SLVFD) was still on call, and the various fire engines coming were non-stop. Again we were asked to help with evacuations. Orders this time, not warnings. I don’t think we found a single person home on our route. 

The winds were changing again, and by afternoon it was all hands on deck because it was going to be coming for the West Village. 

SLVFD embedded themselves with other companies in the West Village and watched as the fire crested over the hill with only a small valley between it and us. The sort of valley that would be easy to cross and only cause it to pick up speed (see picture below from 5:15 pm).

We are a volunteer company, and we have been on plenty of smaller fires. Several acres, lots of flames and heat. We would go to the fire and fight it on our terms. But this was nothing like it. Our entire world was fire. The black sky was brought by the fire. The intense heat in everything you breathed or touched was the fire letting us know it was there. The embers floating down from the black clouds were just another way of the fire letting us know we were in its territory, and it had home field advantage.

The fire didn’t arrive with the intensity we expected. We knocked down any fires as they came over the hill and didn’t give it a purchase point. When we folded up after midnight, there was no damage in the West Village. 

This was my last day I went to sleep feeling good about what I had accomplished.

Monday, Sept 7th. I’m not looking forward to this post. 

Going back a day, on Sunday, Cressman got the evacuation order, and Janet left the house with the dogs. Janet’s mom, Inez Stillwell, was still in hospice care due to a serious fall a few weeks prior. This was a weird blessing since Janet didn’t have to include mom in her evacuation plans. Janet and the dogs had moved to my friend’s house and had packed 2 days worth of clothes and some important paperwork and Rx’s.  I knew that everyone else from Pine Ridge had evacuated. We have a fire department there, but the firefighters have families. They all took care of what was important, and not only can’t I fault them for that (I would have done the same) but it turned out to be a life-saving decision for Pine Ridge Volunteer Fire Dept.

I went to a Chief’s meeting at the high school on Monday morning before returning to the mountain to start work. I remember getting stopped at the top of the 4-lane by CHP for an hour.   I was working with Shaver Lake Volunteer Fire Dept. (SLVFD) and the related fire departments in the Shaver area, patrolling in an engine looking for spot fires and assisting the out-of-town crews.

In the afternoon, one of SLVFD’s members had become seriously exhausted, nauseated and weak. He and I were patrolling Littlefield and Wild Rose when we took a detour down to the Pine Ridge community (there is an “escape” route from Wild Rose to Pine Ridge). Our community was emptied out, but I drove the firefighter to my house. I left the patrol at my house and took the Pine Ridge VFD engine 68 which was parked on my driveway. 

I left the firefighter in my house with the instructions “Rest on the couch; if you feel better, bring the patrol back to the fire; if you don’t feel better, take Janet’s car to your home in Fresno”.

He didn’t feel any better, so he took Janet’s car, which is why Janet’s car survived the fire (she was in my truck). But, and I can literally feel the tears welling up as I type this . . . if he had fallen asleep on my couch that night, he would be dead. Period. I can’t say it any other way. Leaving him there was a bad decision, and his choice not to nap was the only thing that kept him alive. It hurts me every time I think about it; more than the loss of the house quite frankly. 

Back to the fires. After leaving my house in the engine, I contacted the Chief of SLVFD and told him I was taking off my SLVFD hat and putting on my Pine Ridge VFD hat, and I would be patrolling my area. The fire was expected to come downhill through Wild Rose into the Pine Ridge community. There were at least 7 engines assigned to Wild Rose, so I joined them. I showed them all the emergency escape route into Pine Ridge if they needed to run. 

I spent the next 3 to 4 hours at Highway 168 and Littlefield watching for fires coming up from below that threatened to jump the highway. I was busy and had to refill the engine twice. But I was successful (which means it couldn’t have been that bad).  While on the highway, I heard on the radio that the fire had overtaken Cressman Store, and had jumped the highway. I’m honestly not sure what I felt. But my first action was to leave my post and head to the emergency escape route I had pointed out to everyone. If the fire was in Cressman, the escape route would be blocked. I got about 1/4 mile down the escape road before I saw the red glow that was way brighter than I had ever seen. I turned tail and ran. I got on the radio and told the Wild Rose crews that the Cressman escape route was no longer good.

I went back to my job, putting out of my mind what had happened in Pine Ridge, and I continued to help protect Littlefield.  I have no idea what time it was, probably after 1:00 am, that I returned to Shaver Station and tried to sleep on the floor. Exhaustion wasn’t able to overcome what was going on in my mind, and sleep was fleeting at best.

Tuesday, Sept 8th. I was up early at the station having not slept well. I was waiting for daylight to start my day.

I didn’t want to drive E68 through Pine Ridge, so I borrowed the Chief’s rig (a little SUV). I figured it would be more maneuverable. So I drove from Shaver Station to Littlefield since Hwy 168 was so crowded I figured I’d go the back way down. I couldn’t get that far down the emergency escape route to Glenwood since the road was blocked.  Between trees, rocks, and power poles, there was almost no passing. The power lines didn’t bother me because I knew there was no way they would be energized.  I ended up turning around and going to the lower entrance at Cressman Road.  It was then that I saw that Cressman’s Store was gone. I already knew that based on the radio call the night before, but it was weird to see the entire store was only about 2 feet tall.

Cressman’s was a landmark. Not only in the historical sense, but it was something that my brain used as a reference point. I read somewhere that a lot of people find earthquakes so upsetting because the ground they have always relied on as a fixed thing suddenly became less solid. The brain just can’t handle something that is non-changing being changed.

That feeling was going to play itself out in my brain for the next several weeks (and still does to this day on my property). Cressman’s being gone made me question where I was; I could have missed my turn because I wasn’t where I was used to.

Turning onto Cressman Road I saw the mailboxes. Metal boxes bolted into cement. They were laying on the ground, twisted from the intense heat to the point where it looked like the metal had melted. Especially concerning since there was no large heat source nearby (like thick trees or a house).  I dodged a bunch of road debris and made it to my house. I honestly didn’t feel sorrow. I don’t think I felt the scope either. Too many thoughts flying through my head for me to grab a single one and process it. I took a picture and moved down the road. I was there soon enough that there were still flames in the rubble which was once my home.

I drove as far as I could go (not very) to get a feel for what was ahead. We’d need fallers (tree cutters) to clear the road, and probably some engines. It was yet to be seen that any structure had survived, but there was hope since I hadn’t made the complete circle.

I honestly forgot how I spent the rest of Tuesday. I think I went back to Shaver and got my engine and came back to work with the fallers and other departments to assess the damage and prevent it from getting any worse. It was a blur.

It was devastating to call 40 people and let them know their houses were gone, but it was even harder to make the same call to Janet.

Monday, Sept. 14th  I’ve always enjoyed watching the inmate fire crews working the fires. They work nonstop and do a great job. Giving them an opportunity to continue that work for the state is a really great way for their rehabilitation. I wish them only the best and look forward to seeing them in the wildland.

Wednesday, Sept. 16th   On the night the fire came through Shaver, someone took the flag off the Shaver Lake Pizza’s flagpole. It was returned to us a few days ago. Here we are raising it up with some out of town help.

Friday Sept. 18th   Below are three engines from the Pine Ridge Volunteer Fire Department that got burned up in the creek fire. The federal engine was one of our active engines, but it was parked in front of a firefighter’s house when the flames came through. The second engine is a 1985 structure engine that was retired, and we hadn’t got around to selling it yet. Notice the streak of aluminum that flowed from the engine, it was the tank. The third engine was the 1959 water tender I posted about a few months ago. It was sold to a private buyer who hadn’t picked it up yet. It burned down in front of another firefighter’s house.