Jean Larsen

Our Creek Fire Experience

Those of us who live in the mountains of California are always aware that it can happen – – and undoubtedly will happen, sometime – – (but it surely won’t happen to us.)

It did happen!!

We were among the lucky ones. We have lived in Appleridge-Meadowridge (off Littlefield Road) for just short of 30 years. On Saturday, September 5, James Parr with the Pine Ridge Volunteer Fire Department knocked on the door. He told us that we didn’t have to leave right now, but that probably we would be under mandatory evacuation orders by the next day. We had been following the local news about the fire below Big Creek and had already decided that the most we could do to help would be to get out of the way of the firefighting effort and get off the road to leave space for all the equipment rolling up the four-lane.

We packed up the cat, our computers, and clothes to last us two or three days. We were sure that it wouldn’t be a big deal and that the fire would be put out or burn the other direction in a few days. These scares had happened before. I scooped up family albums and the family pictures off the walls – just in case. We took Lee’s pickup and my car and headed to Fresno, intending to stay in our daughter’s condo in Fresno for the few days until the ‘all-clear” to return home. We were at our other daughter’s home in Fresno where the whole family had gathered for support, when we found out that my sister in Mt. Ararat Mobile Home Park in Auberry was being evacuated also. Lee had already left with our son-in-law to get the fifth wheel RV we leave at a friend’s property in Auberry – just in case. Two of our granddaughters then volunteered to go to Auberry to help my sister load up her cat and essentials and bring her to where we were.

At this point, plans had to change, as now there were three of us plus our cat and her cat and we couldn’t all fit in the condo. Our son and daughter-in-law live in Visalia. Their three kids were all away from home in different universities, so there were empty bedrooms. We were all invited to stay with them for the duration of the evacuation. We were still thinking two or three days!
We ended up living with them in Visalia for five weeks! Our daughter-in-law gave me some of her clothes and even her mother gave me a couple of shirts. Our cat, my sister’s cat, and the resident cat we barged in on didn’t get along and couldn’t be in the same room together, so that created a “musical cats” kind of rotation. (The Auberry evacuation order was lifted after about 10 days, so we took my sister and her cat back home after a couple weeks.) We still weren’t allowed to return home to Shaver.

The first night away from home, in Visalia, we were given erroneous information that our home had burned. I spent the night mentally walking through each room looking at the paintings and various articles that were important to me that were now lost. I love our property and every tree and rock on it, and I couldn’t imagine it all gone. The next day we found out that the information was probably not true, but there was no way to be sure until several weeks later.

About the middle of October we were finally allowed to go back to Shaver to check on our home, but not to stay there – we were told we had to leave by 5:00 and head back down the mountain. It was a huge relief to actually see for ourselves that our home was untouched. The fire had crossed the highway on both sides of our area and the wonderful firefighters had saved all the homes! They even camped in the area, patrolling the edges for hotspots.

That day we went to check on property of friends near us and found a huge fire truck from Long Beach parked in their drive and four firefighters behind the lot, felling trees that were killed but still standing. They explained this was necessary so that the dead trees wouldn’t fall later and the impact bring up airborne particles still smoldering. The fire had come right to the back property line of our friends’ home and flaming embers had started small fires on their back deck!
I thanked the firefighters repeatedly and the response was always, “No Problem”. I mentioned to one of the Long Beach firefighters that I had been raised in Long Beach. He questioned me and it turned out that we had grown up in the same neighborhood and gone to the same high school – 60 years apart!

During our evacuation, Lee was sure that he had lost a bonsaied Japanese maple tree next to the front door that he had lovingly cared for more than twenty years. That and a large red one in a pot on the front deck would of course be now dead, after five weeks of hot weather without water. That first time back we were amazed to see them both alive and happy. Lee is convinced that the firefighters who were protecting our neighborhood had simply looked at the situation, filled a nearby watering can, and saved the beautiful maples for us!.
When residents in our area were finally allowed to come back to live, our family came up to help. We had liquified rot floating in the kitchen refrigerator and the garage freezer from five weeks without power. CalTrans was patrolling the area, I guess to make sure that it was really the owners, not looters, going in and out of the homes. They told us to put the debris in garbage bags and drag them out to the road, and along came a little front loader to scoop up all the bags of rot and debris. Neither fridge nor freezer could be saved and they had to be taken to the transfer station on Dinkey Creek Road. It turned out that here were so many families in the same situation that replacement appliances were hard to find.

Our kids helped scrub the smoke off the walls, vacuum and fabric spray the upholstery, and wash all the clothes in the closets. The house reeked of smoke for weeks and we had to buy an air purifier. Insurance eventually reimbursed us for the refrigerator, freezer, air purifier, lost food, etc. Things gradually went back to as close to “normal” as Covid allowed. As Secretary of Shaver Lake Lions Club, I was able to participate in the various efforts to help those who had lost their homes. Talking with people about the fire still makes me want to cry.

We were so blessed to have come out of this horrible fire relatively easily and we are very, very grateful for that – but we have many friends who lost everything.