Joe | Pine Ridge

9- 5- 22

Baptized In Fire: Recollections Of A Volunteer Firefighter


Monday, September 7th 2020, 3:30 PM: As flames raced south across Jose Basin, very few residents remained on Cressman Road before evacuating. Those of us left were either scrambling to pack up the last of our irreplaceable items or trying to prepare properties for the inevitable. A wall of flames two hundred plus feet tall was consuming the forest we loved at an inconceivable rate, leaving behind it a kind of destruction rarely seen in history. It was time to abandon ship, and not a second too soon, witnessing the orange glow of an incoming monster obscured by smoke.

For me the story begins five months earlier in April of 2020; an emerging pandemic that rocked civilization had showed some of us that there should be more to life than the hustle and bustle of city life. I decided to ditch my longtime residency on the central coast of California and attempt to make my way to the Sierra Nevada range. Few places in the state stood out as somewhere I could grow roots; Shaver Lake was at the top of my shortlist due to familiarity and recreational opportunity. With no time to waste, I quickly headed up to view potential properties that fit the bill. One of them stood out from the rest, nestled in the close-knit community of Pine Ridge. A modest yet inviting home sitting on five beautiful acres, it was the rural homestead dream realized.

Shortly after moving in I joined the local fire department, Pine Ridge Volunteer Fire Department (PRVFD). A small band of kind and hardworking residents, it became a second family immediately. Having only a few fire behavior college courses under my belt I was eager to train and gain useable knowledge in wildland firefighting techniques, knowing in the back of my head that a time might come to use these skills. Yet I could never have predicted how soon that day would arrive or the way it may unfold.

Following the loss of 75 percent of our neighborhood, there was barely an instant to digest the news as it was time to step up to the duties bestowed on the few of us firefighters able to activate. A handful of PRVFD members, myself included, returned to the mountains two days after the initial fire front had raged across the landscape and left it nearly unrecognizable. Handed my first radio, myself having no idea how to use it, our chief laid out the game plan.

The main jobs for the unforeseeable future were to support incoming firefighting personal and protect the surviving structures of our community. There was also the austere task of assessing all the destroyed properties of neighbors, most of who were unaware the full extent of the damage. This was an especially daunting task, having just moved there three months earlier and not knowing my way around our roads. With potential for fire flare-ups at any moment that could block exits and become deadly, we took on the morose mission of documenting and photographing each address to forward the information to distraught owners.

Of the remaining homes and outbuildings in our “green bubble,” some areas were too dangerous to protect due to thick unburned fuel and no alternative egress. We focused on supplying water to the myriad of engines working to suppress the remaining flames, meanwhile hunting down spot fires with potential to crown out and force another evacuation. For nearly two weeks it was unsafe to sleep on the mountain with the threat of another large burn in these “green and black” zones. I would work all day and into night before heading down the hill to a friend’s house in Auberry. His family had evacuated as well but not left a spare key so camping out on their porch was the only option, and not a particularly bad one for an outdoorsman like myself. It was still technically archery hunting season so sleeping under the stars felt natural anyway, except the stars were nowhere to be found in the thick smoky haze.

Within a few weeks, with the fire still creeping around, a few volunteers were able to move back into one of our houses that survived. This helped us provide around the clock support for the fire crews still working in our area and gave us a place for to rest between shifts. However, we remained ready to evacuate had the fire picked back up into the surrounding canopy. Constantly battling continuing ground fire, we stayed at the property until the end of mandatory evacuation. I was then able to purchase a used travel trailer to park on my own property. It was a place to call home once again; a welcome relief and essential measure to begin the extensive cleanup, rebuilding and reforestation process.

Having fought the fire for over a month, I returned to work and attempted to gain normalcy in my daily routine. Staying vigilant and living amidst the wreckage of our community was really the only option for me. There was no emergency rental clause in my fire insurance policy and I also preferred to be on site for the purpose of logging all the dead trees. There was much to be done going forward and no time to waste. Winter came in late November with Thanksgiving snow extinguishing all but the most stubborn of smoldering stumps and hollow trees. Armed with some essential snow gear saved from the flames, I spent plenty of days at China Peak during the ski season, clearing my head of the past fall and focusing on the future.

Spring and summer finally came around so it was time to clear more hazard trees to prepare for the eventual rebuild of my house and planting of seedlings. By fall of 2021 cement was being poured after all the building plans and permits were approved. Just having a slab going into the next winter was reason to celebrate, but framing and all construction would have to wait until 2022. Beginning again mid-April, things have moved along at a desperate pace, in hopes to complete and move into a home before yet another winter. I feel so fortunate to have lived up on the mountain nearly the entire time since the fire, with many other neighbors having to relocate to less elevated locations. I am blessed to have had fire insurance and very helpful adjusters striving to get the absolute most from the limited coverage. I know it has been an ongoing fight for many others with insurance companies, and horribly devastating for those without insurance. My heart goes out to all affected.

The story doesn’t end there, it will continue throughout the rebuilding process and into the rest of our lifetimes, shared with anyone interested and through this Storyteller program. I would like to thank all the organizations, clubs, businesses and individuals who stepped up to provide assistance in any and every way possible. Thanks also to the firefighters and law enforcement, local and from all over the country, that came to battle the blaze in our neck of the woods. The support from the whole entire community was essential to get survivors back on their feet, and help us to realize a way to conquer the monumental tasks laid before us. We remain mountain strong now and forever, and we will always be connected by the severe trials and tribulations of the Creek fire.