Winter Hours: Closed for Season
Jim Gregory | Camp Sierra
I am a third-generation cabin owner at Camp Sierra. My grandparents started coming to Camp Sierra in the 1920s, as a retreat from the heat of the summer months in the valley, to relax, have fellowship and attend Methodist church meetings sometimes called Chautauqua. My parents were evacuated from our cabin during the 1994 Big Creek Fire. I recently retired as an agronomist and enjoyed the summer of 2020, typically spending five days at the cabin, sheltering in place during COVID, and returning home to Hanford to purchase groceries and to go to the hardware store for supplies for my cabin maintenance projects.
In May 2020, I received a “notice of non-renewal” of the cabin insurance from my insurance company. The National Forest Homeowners Association referred me to an agency, which gave a quote from Lloyds of London, for 4X premium for what I was paying. In July, another cabin owner who is with Kingsburg Insurance Agency was able to get a policy on our cabin with California FAIR Plan, for 3X the cost of the previous premium.
I closed the cabin and left, as planned, for Hanford on the morning of September 4. On the way down, I remember reflecting on the beauty of Shaver Lake. The next morning, we watched the news and began to piece together the events that were unfolding. My sister and her family were at their cabin, which is next to mine. When the evacuation order came that evening, my nephew left immediately with his family. My sister and her husband made sure the guest campers in the lodges were evacuated. Because of this, they were probably the last site holders to evacuate. Before midnight, the fire had crossed Big Creek Road, so they had to evacuate the alternate way out, which was the back route, via Big Creek and the back side of Huntington Lake. My niece, who is with the Fresno County Sheriff’s Dept., was involved with her responsibilities.
The Creek Fire started at the bottom of the canyon about a mile below Camp Sierra and raced up the slope. I believe it was an act of God, for apparently there was a wind shift, allowing the firefighters, who had pre-positioned in the common area of Camp Sierra earlier that evening, to employ defensive measures and the firefighters were able to save us.
One business in Shaver Lake, the next day, posted on their Facebook page that Camp Sierra was gone. Fortunately, that information was not true. There are seventy one privately owned cabins, and four were lost to the Creek Fire. The Camp Sierra Conference Association has lodging and facilities for about 150 campers. The only structure lost was the outdoor amphitheater. Sewer and water pipes were damaged, mostly by bulldozers making fire break lines. The fire completely went around about 40 acres which make up Camp Sierra. Our tract is like an oasis, with a moonscape around us. This can be seen across the canyon from the road between Big Creek and Huntington Lake. We are having more bear interactions because they are seeking a natural forest habitat.
Dr. Robert Junell, a good friend of ours, also from Hanford, lost his cabin to the fire in the Huckleberry Tract at Huntington Lake.
The fire came up to the road’s edge across from our cabin. The fire started burning inside our stacked wood pile, about 50 feet from the cabin. A bulldozer dispersed the burning firewood, and firefighters put out the fire in the firewood, leaving a debris field of half charcoal firewood. I spent the next summer hauling off several dump trailer loads of half-burnt charcoal firewood and replacing the woodpile.
One month after the fire, cabin owners were able to go to the cabins on a Saturday to empty the refrigerators and freezers, which had been without power since the fire, and to winterize the cabins. The rotten food put off a terrible smell. The scene around us was surreal, with an apocalyptic grey moonscape-like forest with smoke still coming from the ground. Only day trips were allowed until the spring of 2021 because there were delays in getting a permit for the replacement sewer lift station. In November, we put a sandbag barrier in front of the cabin because the burnt hillside above had been identified as a potential mudslide hazard.
In October 2021, I took the lead in replacing the Camp Sierra entrance sign at Big Creek Road, with help from a Hanford sign company and a cabinet shop. An article was written about Camp Sierra and the new sign in the November 17, 2021 issue of the Mountain Press.
The 2020 and 2021 camping season pandemic shutdown was devasting for the Conference Association, because there was little income coming in, and yet the invoices kept coming. The 2022 camping season was a turnaround, and the Conference Association showed a slight profit. Having two cabins listed on the Airbnb website has helped.
Whether as campers or cabin owners, Camp Sierra is part of our soul, and we feel closer to God when we are at our favorite place in the national forest. My daughter will inherit the family cabin and my grandchildren will hopefully continue to enjoy our special place.