Kristin Telles

Kristin Telles | Bass Lake, Huntington Lake

2-4-22

 

Suffice it to say, 2020 was hard. I’d spent all spring and summer thinking that the kids and I would go back to school in August, and we would get some normalcy back in our lives. It didn’t happen. By Labor Day weekend of 2020 I was feeling pretty wrung out.

I encouraged my husband to go to Huntington and spend some time mountain biking with friends while I took the kids to visit my parents and sister at the cabin my grandfather had built at Bass Lake in 1952. Connor headed up to Huntington on Friday, the kids, dogs and I drove to Bass Lake.

Saturday morning at Bass Lake we learned that there was a fire near Big Creek. I wasn’t worried about the fire at first—Big Creek wasn’t particularly close to Huntington or anywhere near Bass Lake. My family and I even talked about a fire that broke out between Big Creek and Huntington when I was a little girl, cancelling our annual visit with the Linneman family on Crestline Road, high above Huntington Lake.  Shortly thereafter I learned that our friends at the Huntington Lake Volunteer Fire Department were evacuating Huntington. To my distress, my husband felt compelled to try to protect the cabin there and not leave immediately.

Later that same morning our elderly dog had a stroke.  When I tried to call Connor to tell him I was planning to take her to Fresno to put her down, I realized he had also lost all cell service due to the fire…   She later stabilized so I decided to stay put at Bass Lake.  At some point when checking Sierra News Online—our favorite source for Bass Lake area information—I read an article aloud to my mom. I remember saying, “it says that the fire is 45,000 acres, but that isn’t possible. Fires don’t grow that fast, this must be a typo.”  It wasn’t.

Saturday night my brother-in-law arrived at the cabin. He saw us at the table and said, “Are you sure we shouldn’t be packing up to go home? I just drove up from North Fork and it is glowing off to the East.” It pains me to say that we’d seen that before. Fires have happened so often over the past ten years, it seems. We hadn’t heard anything about evacuations for Bass Lake—I mean the fire was in Big Creek!—so after checking the news again, we agreed to go to bed and make a decision about leaving the next morning.  

My husband finally called. He’d driven down from Huntington, there was nothing more he could do. The flames were getting close to the dam, and he could see them from the cabin near the Fire Station at the other end of the lake. In his despair he left peace offerings for the fire, or firefighters who should come by (see photos). I have always admired his sense of playful humor…

I woke up early on Sunday morning and was writing in my journal on the front porch, as is often my habit when we’re all at the cabin together. My niece likes to point out that I call it a journal, but it’s really my diary. It’s also my schedule, my to-do list and a glue that often holds all the little pieces of me together.  I took these pictures. At 6:30 am it was a grey sky, by 9:30am it was dark and red. Ash was floating down from the sky. We got everyone up and started the process of leaving the cabin even though there was not yet an evacuation order.

What to take? There was nothing in the cabin of value, but so many things were priceless to us. The framed print of “the turkey hunter” has lurked behind a chair in the corner my entire life, and probably since 1952. We’re not much on changing things in the cabin…   The bowl we put berries in for breakfast most mornings had come from the Huntington cabin of a dear friend of my grandmother. A book that my aunt wrote, the Bass-Lake shaped cribbage board, and a few original watercolors of the Sierras…  Six adults, five children, five dogs (one of whom had just survived her first stroke) and a kitten needed to be loaded up. My father insisted on driving my grandfather’s 1952 Willy’s out of the range of the fire, despite its being geared super low and not having been driven on a highway in my entire lifetime either.   

We all made it out safely and “easily” compared to so, so many. But I was shaken—it had never occurred to me that both of my favorite places—both Huntington and Bass Lake could be lost to the same fire and at the same time. Why was the fire so big and so fast?  I’d been watching the bark beetle devastation for years, as the trees turned red, then grey, then the tops snagged off, then the oaks began to leaf out below what was once the canopy. This still seemed worse than I had ever imagined—both Huntington and Bass Lake to be destroyed by the same fire?

The next few days were a blur of distraction. I couldn’t do anything but stare at my devices. I signed up for twitter, I was haunting Facebook. How is it that in a disaster like this we are relying on social media for updates? I texted constantly with a neighbor at Huntington. Lakeshore had burned. Lakeshore hadn’t burned. Cedar Crest was gone. Cedar Crest wasn’t gone. Huckleberry was gone. And so much of it was. When the map of the cabins lost at Huntington became available, it was devastating. I remember running the numbers with another friend from that tract. Her family’s cabin was saved, but they lost their water system and the fire burned all the way up to their porch. Thirty-six of her neighbors were not so lucky…

Huntington and Bass Lake might not be close to one another using paved roads, but the Creek Fire didn’t follow roads.  As the crow flies, they are approximately 22 miles apart but by my very rough calculations, the Creek Fire burned approximately 594 square miles.   At 379,895 acres the Creek Fire was the largest single-ignition wildfire in California history until it lost that title in 2021 to the Dixie fire. What a tragedy.   I hope that we learn from these fires to embrace better forest management, to thin the bark beetle-ravaged trees, and to seize opportunities to help one another. We’re all closer together than we might think.

After the fire a friend call to ask if I would be an Ambassador for a newly formed Creek Fire recovery effort at the Central Sierra Historical Society. I begged her to let me help. And so, a year and a half later, here I sit—a council member for the Central Sierra Resiliency Fund and the chair of this Storytelling program.  I am not an expert storyteller by any stretch of the imagination, but I really, really wanted the stories of this fire to be preserved in our local history. Like so many of you have told me, “My story isn’t that important or that dramatic. I didn’t lose my home,” but it is my experience of the Creek Fire during the fire, so I’m sharing what I have to share.  I am so grateful to the many storytellers who have shared their stories with the project.  I think that telling our stories can be healing. Reading others’ stories can help us find commonality with one another, as well as learn of the different ways we experienced this event we will all remember.   I am also so proud to have worked with the committee that put this project together—Historians, Lions, Firefighters, Foresters, Physicians, we’ve come together to preserve this history. Thank you for being the team.