Marissa Neely | Big Creek, Shaver & Huntington
September 15, 2020
Marissa and Chris Neely are Shaver Lake locals who now live on their sailboat, named Avocet. This story was originally publised on their blog, Sailing Avocet: https://www.svavocet.com/2020/09/15/up-in-flames/?fbclid=IwAR21HQvnj2ojmJTkR986SDYgwwPjYXKg0bXSV7L9qxthg6rrnIIucLJ9nIQ
And So It Begins
“We haven’t eaten anything since lunch yesterday” a shocking truth that had gone unnoticed for hours until Chris and I were sitting side by side in his truck, northbound. Stress, fear, and the unknown all mixed together are very filling especially when your stomach is already in knots. For 9 hours we had been sitting at the edge of our seats checking our phones for updates constantly. Our “go” bags were packed, Cleo was fed, and the boat could be locked up in seconds. In 12 hours over 45,000 acres of the Sierra National Forest had burned in what the public had been calling the #CreekFire.
I attempted to write about this the night prior to leaving when we first heard of the fire, but failed as I couldn’t compile enough words to match my emotions. After barely sleeping and being alone with my thoughts and the subtle sound of Chris’s snoring and Cleo’s purrs I was able to jot down some things to form a more well put together post.
The fire started September 4th below the small town of Big Creek, California, a quaint community tucked into the mountainside. Big Creek is a historical town of about 200 residents, most of them operating the power plant that has been using hydro power to create electricity since the early 1900’s. It is a gem of the Sierra National Forest, and now many historic homes have been lost to flames.
Chris and I used to drive his 1963 MGB up and down that old road to Big Creek, enjoying the freedom of the forest and each other’s company. To imagine those same breathtaking views that we have enjoyed for so many years decimated by fire is absolutely soul shattering. As the fire continued to spread our hearts grew heavier, and heavier.
Huntington Lake is a man made fresh water lake that stretches for 7 miles. It is most notable for hosting the High Sierra Regatta, a sailboat race that the Neely’s have participated in for years. The lake is also home to Gold Arrow Camp, a summer camp for kids, which is where Chris spent many summers growing up and also where Jon and Shannon (SV Prism) met as camp councilors under the names of “Crush” and “Shark”, eventually falling for each other and hatching the idea of sailing around the world. A favorite memory of Chris’s is sailing from Gold Arrow Camp to Willow, a spot at the west end of the lake. It was a crowning achievement for the young summer camp sailors to sail nearly 6 miles up the lake and celebrate with ice creams before sailing back to their starting point. Huntington Lake is also where Chris taught me how to sail when we were just 14 years old. The fire reached the west end of the lake, consuming many historic cabins and threatening others in the surrounding area.
The fire is not only spreading north but also south, growing dangerously close to the town of Shaver Lake, which is where Chris’s childhood home resides. When Chris and I became close friends at 13/14 years old he had spent a lot of time at my family’s cabin just down the road which is where we made our first memories. We grew up together, gallivanting through the forest often with a camera working on our artistic photography skills. The photos were nothing less than “cringe worthy” but looking back I am so glad we captured those moments in time.
Eventually I started to make my way into the Neely home, spending almost every weekend there with Chris and his mom. I loved my family’s cabin, but there was something wonderfully different about the Neely house. The walls were adorned with photos taken by Van, Chris’s dad, and hung with care by Mama Neely. Every photo was a story in itself. Pictures of all the kids, extended family, sailing… it was a museum of happy memories. In addition to the photos, there was a warm presence that filled the home, and to this day I have to believe it’s the spirit of Chris’s dad. Over the years the Neely home truly became mine as well, which is why I had broke down in tears when we heard it was in the path of the Creek Fire’s destruction.
Last month when I wrote about my childhood home in Santa Cruz being threatened by the Complex Fires, I described the horrific imagery that played in my head. Despite my minds slideshow of negative outcomes I was optimistic since the communities along the central coast are well equipped with resources to control the burn. My half glass full attitude prevailed and the fire was stopped in Santa Cruz County by the hard working fire crews. Not even one month later the graphic imagery of a home consumed by flames returned to me, but this time the home belonged to Chris and my optimism had been severely repressed by the many weighing factors of the fire.
The Sierra National Forest has been a ticking time bomb for disaster since at least 2015 when the bark beetles plagued the forest claiming 80% of it by eating the beautiful green trees, turning them an orange-brown, leaving our forest to look like it was in a permanent state of autumn, all year long. The towering pines sat idly waiting for one gust to push them over since their structural integrity was compromised from the inside out by the beetles. The top of one tree hit the Neely home a few winter’s ago with Mama Neely and I inside. Minimal damage was sustained to the house, but it was a telltale sign our Forest was in danger. The dry trees and warm air has made the forest a timber box, just waiting for a spark.
The Drive to Nowhere
At the time I had began to write this I had just heard that this fire had spread to 80,000 acres. It was 10:30 a.m. on September 6th. Chris and I were heading to Shaver, or as far as we could make it, to help evacuate his family and hopefully collect more things from his home including his mom’s cat Leia. My eyes were itchy and bloodshot, stomach was empty, and for once I was at a total loss of words. The whole car ride had been virtually silent, with the occasional “Are you F-ING KIDDING ME!?” When we would receive updates on the raging fire or when a Prius decided to pull in front of us and drive 10 under the speed limit.
“It’s sooo going to take the house” Chris said after we had stopped for gas. We were an hour away from home, making good time. “We should have left last night” he said. I remained quiet, squeezing his freshly sanitized hand for support thinking that if it wasn’t for me and my job we would have been there already. So many times this year my job has prevented me from playing an active supporting role in our families lives.
Recently when my home was in fire danger we stayed home and I worked. When Chris’s mom got into a life threatening car accident Chris left to be by her side and I stayed home and worked. Even now when we got news of this fire we decided to wait so I could fulfill my work duties the following day, once again putting work first… thinking back I wish we would have left. I take pride in my job and work as hard as I can, but times like these remind me that life is so much more than just living for the weekend.
As we approached the mountain the smoke was thick, and blanketed the view in front of us. We came prepared with our masks, the ones we purchased specifically for the California “fire season” last year, and were expecting the worst conditions. At 1:00 p.m. we made it to Chris’s sisters house. All 3 nephews were in their car seats and both Tess and Jason’s cars were packed and ready to leave. On the doorstep was a hand written memento from the Erdman family, a true Van Neely move pulled off by his one and only daughter.
As ash began to rain on us we said our goodbyes and hopefully see-you-laters to the Erdman home, driving away from the fire. Unable to pass the CHP to reach the Neely Home, we sent our best wishes up the mountain and hoped to god it would make it through this disaster. Mom’s cat Leia, a highly skilled hunter, was on her own now.
We drove back down the hazy road the same way we had rushed up. Feeling defeated, our silence grew louder. “At least our family is safe” I finally choked up, careful not to start bawling. We trailed our family down the mountain to the valley where we gathered with Mama Neely, hugging, sobbing, and being thankful we were together again.
Tess and her family gave hugs and said goodbye as they retreated to Cambria, a true safe haven for the family to be with each other during this time. Chris, Mama Neely, her friend (and current caretaker) Terrill and I sat around the living room trying to make light of the situation. After we decompressed a bit, Chris and I made a quick trip to our friend Clarke’s house where we dropped off some of the evacuated items for safe keeping. After another round of drinks and somber discussion we said goodbye then drove to my Aunt and Uncles where my Grandpa – who also lives in Shaver Lake – had retreated to.
Strength in Family
*Woof Woof* all Hushaw homes come with tail-wagging-greeters equipped with a good bark. We sank into my Aunt and Uncle’s couch, sharing updates and trying to keep ourselves distracted from the ongoing chaos. I was mid-conversation when Chris got a call and wandered over to the kitchen where I heard soft but sharp profanities on repeat. “Chris… you okay?”
“The house is going” was the absolute worst thing to hear. A spot fire had sparked from embers right behind the Neely house and was growing dangerously close. With a plan to return later for the night we parted with my family and made our way back to Mama Neely. Chris melted into his mother’s arms. I could see tears quietly escape my husband’s eyes while he was trying to be strong for his mom. We shared a moment of sobbing then began talking about the positives and what we could do. We were so thankful to have friends on the frontlines of this fire who were able to feed us direct information. A very close friend messaged Mama Neely to say that our house was saved! For now, anyways. We won the battle, but the war had only just begun.
After forcing myself to eat for the first time in a day and a half we helped Mama Neely get ready for bed and Chris dressed her healing ankle wounds. I called one of my best friends, Megan, and spoke with her trying to keep my mind at ease. She recommended I manifest the homes safety. Before Chris and I attempted to sleep that night we sat at the edge of my Aunt and Uncles very comfortable guest room bed, holding hands and worked on our manifesting. Within 10 minutes we received a text message from a friend on the mountain that said he thought the house would survive the night. Thanks to the mild reassurance of our home’s safety and the melatonin my Aunt gave me, I fell asleep in Chris’s arms almost instantly.
3:00 a.m. September 7th: I woke up from a nightmare in a cold sweat, only to grab my phone and see the nightmare was real. I checked the fire status and was relieved there were no reports of loss or anything critical at that time in the morning. My thumbs tapping on my phone woke Chris up, who then did his best to convince me to go back to sleep.
A few hours later I woke up again at the respectable time of 7:00 a.m. I reached for my phone and felt a wave of relief wash over me when the early morning news came through that the fire line around the town of Shaver Lake had held and no structures had been lost! Although this was just one victory in this fire fight, we won for now and took what we could get. Although the fear of losing our home in the spot fire was absolutely terrifying there was a silver lining: if the main Creek Fire did reach the town it would run out of fuel due to the brush already being burned away, meaning we stood a pretty darn good chance if the wind remained calm.
I rolled out of bed and wiped my face with a washcloth, staring at myself in the mirror. I looked tired and dark circles around my eyes made me look like a raccoon. I wondered if this year would age me like the photo comparison of the presidents at the start of their term and at the end…
The warm smell of coffee wafted through the Hushaw home as we made our way to the family room where we were bombarded by two happy-tail-wiggling-dogs. “Good morning!” And it was indeed. The Neely house survived the night but we knew that was still only the beginning. We had breakfast and kept our minds busy with storytelling and jokes, doing our best to keep the mood light. My Aunt Carol graced us with her presence at the table adding to the conversation. Mid-laugh all of our phones began screeching, alerting us that there was a mandatory evacuation for the town and surrounding areas of Auberry which was not a good sign. In a quick moment our smiles were reduced to neutral stares as Chris made calls to our friends on the scene.
Less than an hour later we got a report of the first structure fire in Shaver Lake, started from embers. It was a house only a few doors down from the Neely Home. Chris and I passed by it often on our long walks together; we had never imagined this hell was possible. With the predicted winds for the day topping at 30 mph from the West, our hope for the Neely home was slipping. I called a friend for an update. The photos he sent from the scene made my heart drop. I tried to keep the faith for Chris, but even he was living in the cynical reality that his home may become ash.
An Unexpected Goodbye
As a child, my first memories were made in Shaver Lake spending weekends at my Aunt and Uncles cabin. Everything was special to me. I remember walking through the door and upstairs to a full table with my great grandma Sara at the head, kicking everyone’s butt at a game of Parchese. I remember the 90’s wallpaper that was filled with shapes and bright colors on the dining room wall. The ladder to the loft where I fell off and knocked the wind out of myself for the first time. The Taxidermy trout that hung proudly on the wall. A place we gathered as Hushaw’s on so many occasions to celebrate family and togetherness. I did not expect that I would potentially have to say goodbye to that cabin so soon and in such a harsh way. I was dazed and heartbroken when we got the call that the fire line had stretched down the mountain to Musick Creek next to where my family members’ cabins were. When my parents sold our neighboring cabin in 2019 I had an emotional goodbye with it, filming every room in detail to keep and show our future kids where mom and dad fell in love, it was a much more elegant way to say “goodbye.”
The wind was supposed to peak at 5:00 pm then be dead calm afterwards. It was 1:30 and we were waiting for the worst. I sat alone in a room with all of my memories rushing me at once while also scanning the maps and information sites just counting down the hours.
Sit. Cry. Regroup. Wait. Repeat.
An obnoxious cocktail of emotions flooded us all as we shared information through family texts and Facebook threads. We would receive new information and cry, then be reassured by following information that all is “well” for now. Then we would wait. The vicious cycle continued as we sat anxiously awaiting the inevitable unknown.
*ring* *ring* *ring*
Our friends called their home to see if the line was still connected. At that time their house and the Neely house was there. We had heard minimal information regarding the progress of the fire and all we knew was that it is on its way towards the Erdman home. We were 30 minutes from 5:00 pm and still waiting for the wind to die. The fire had created its own weather system and the scanner reported that there was ground lightening and fire tornadoes.
As day bled into night we hugged Mama Neely goodnight and headed to my family’s for dinner. 5 minutes from the Hushaw home we received a video of our street, showing what was left of the two homes previously engulfed in flames. Nothing but rubble and chimneys brought Chris and I to tears. The surrounding ground was fire free and there were no signs of a continued fire fight, the Neely home confidently stood another night. We were humbled again by the wrath of Mother Nature; one of those ash piles could have been our home but it seemed that it was not our turn to burn.
Another Sleepless Night
As we parked in my aunt and uncle’s driveway we got out of the truck and ran into each other’s arms, still sobbing from the moment of relief knowing our mountain home would be safe for now. Our attention shifted from our worries to my family’s as the fire had progressed down into the area their cabins were.
The whole Hushaw clan was present for the fire debrief on channel 37. We watched carefully with our eyes glued to the screen. Unfortunately, there was no useful or new information provided and we turned the TV off feeling no better or worse. Luckily, Auntie Carol had prepared a filling dinner to replace the pit of despair that had taken up residence in my stomach and we enjoyed a lovely meal over the family table sharing stories of sailing, memories, and of course finding whatever silver lining we could.
The only thing that spread faster than the wildfire were the wild rumors of what structures had been destroyed. Once able to return to town, the first responders went into the heart of Big Creek and showed that the school house and general store still standing while a handful of homes were in ruins. Those standing structures were a glimmer of hope that not all was lost especially since they were the first to be “reported” as destroyed when the fire began.
“Any news?” We asked our friend in “high places” as he prepared to fly over the scene. Cressmans general store was destroyed last night, an absolute blow to our community. The taste of their peanut butter cookies filled my tastebuds as a phantom memory. Pine Ridge Elementary, a school Chris, his siblings, and now nephews attend had been severely damaged and the fire was still heading down the hill towards Chris’s big sisters home.
The Erdman home was built with care by Jason, Tess’s husband, who (with the help of his wife) did a masterful job designing and constructing the home for their family of 5. They had just finished building the garage. We had faith in my sister in laws home withstanding the heat and flames since Jason had built it with the environment in mind, placing fire resistant siding around the home unlike the Neely house that was quite literally covered in lacquer.
All we could do was clench our phones in anticipation of news. Another fire had started down south near L.A. due to a failed “Gender Reveal” which consequently destroyed many homes and continued to rage through the hot and dry hillsides. Up north in Oregon my mom’s eldest brother had been evacuated due to a fire that had quickly grown and threatened numerous homes and farms; fires seethed all around us.
We debriefed with the Hushaw family over coffee before packing up the truck and heading to Mama Neely’s. Once together we celebrated the small victories after a news reporter shared footage of Shaver Lake showing that the flames were gone. Although we were thankful, the fear and anxiety of losing the Neely home was again transferred to worrying about the Hushaw cabins and Erdman home down the mountain.
The reports trickled in as we got confirmation of what was still there and what was gone. We decided it was best to make our way back to Avocet to check on Cleo cat and get some work done. We stopped by Cambria to see Tess and the boys. The kids were in good spirits, mom and dad Erdman masking their fear to remain strong for their family. It was a stressful few days for us all and there were no signs of the fire letting up, being 0% contained.
Back home on Avocet we realized just how rushed we were to leave. A sink full of dishes, laundry scattered about, projects half finished… we had only been gone a day and a half but by the looks of the boat you would have thought it was a week. Cleo was happy to have us home, purring and rubbing against our legs while meowing until we picked her up. It was the first solid night of sleep I had in 3 days.
Being home at sea level was a quite literal breath of fresh air. The smoke was gone and the salty smell of the ocean greeted us with the marine layer. We searched for normalcy as we tried to focus on small tasks; office work for me, boat work for Chris. We failed miserably at staying busy and shifted our attention to finding a way to see if our family homes were safe.
Chris and I had been seeing so many videos from “reporters” sharing footage of what the fire left behind. It was insulting hearing outsiders talk about our homes and communities as if we had no love for them ourselves. One “journalist” in particular completely bashed the home of a family friend saying that they should have cleaned their gutters to prevent their home from becoming ash–that video was how the family learned that their beautiful home was gone. Unfortunately, out of the handful of reports that were available we had yet to see any that showed our family homes standing safe and sound. With the mountain access still closed to all residents we were beginning to feel discouraged which is when Chris got a call from one of his producers.
Home is Where the Heart Is
“It’s like we were just here” I said jokingly as we rolled into Fresno. We arrived at my Aunt and Uncles just a quarter past nine, absolutely exhausted. The guest room was just how we left it, making it that much easier to slide into bed. We would need all the rest we could get to prepare for the following day.
The morning always comes too early, our tired eyes fighting to wake up. After breakfast and a briefing we hugged my family goodbye and thus began the most emotionally taxing day I have ever had. We drove further into the smoke as the road began to disappear from in front of us. “I can taste it now” Chris said through his N95 mask. The brand new mask was white that morning, but by the end of the day it would turn a dark brown.
We pulled into our first checkpoint and stated our business while sharing our credentials that were neatly tucked in Chris’s work binder. After we thanked the officer he directed us to check in with the PIO set up down the road. Once we shared our information and checked in with the responders on site we were allowed to drive up the mountain.
It was another silent car ride as we tried to prepare for what we were moments away from witnessing. All too soon, charred forest came into view making a town we knew like the back of our hands absolutely unrecognizable. Our mouths started forming words our brains barely had time to create, voicing things like “oh my god” on repeat. Almost missing our turn, we drove down the hill towards Chris’s sister’s house to document how the fire has affected the neighborhood. A family friends’ home was in ruins. Nothing but a charred classic car frame remained, smoking.
At Chris’s sisters house there was no sign of fire besides the large amounts of ash that had fallen on the home. With a dry groundcover, Chris and I raked all of the leaves and wood scraps around the homes perimeter to help increase the fire safety. We also watered all of the decks and sides of the house, making sure to wet the large piles of wood that were stacked neatly in front. When there was nothing more we could do, we filled buckets of water to leave behind for the scared and misplaced wildlife then continued to drive through the neighborhood and send messages to our friends regarding the status of their homes.
Unlike the other “journalists” Chris and I did not live-post about our time on the mountain. We were there to document the destruction, then leave. It was not our place to live stream neighborhoods, showcasing the empty streets and allowing online predators and potential looters to know the exact whereabouts of these homes. Instead, we sent about 30 people (friends and acquaintances alike) the status of their homes directly, not sharing the posts online for public view. We continued to drive through the threatened and devastated neighborhoods, holding back the emotions to remain focused on our job. Chris stopped at the neighborhood in Pine Ridge, and walked up to the remains of a home. “Who lived here?” I asked… then I looked and saw the remains of an MGB, similar to our own. Chris called our friends to tell them the status of their home. He barely choked out the words, ending it all with “I am so sorry.”
The tone was set from there on. We passed my grandfather’s old home on the ridge that was completely decimated; I remembered his beautiful panoramic view of the valley below, his tomato plants sitting on both sides of the window. Chris’s high school teachers’ home was nothing more that ash and broken glass. Another friend’s lot was empty where a house once stood among the trees. After documenting and relaying information to our friends we continued our anxious drive up the mountain, towards the Neely home.
Madera County, Santa Clara County, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Denair County, Squaw Valley, Paradise… As we climbed elevation I made notes of the fire engines we passed so I could properly thank them for coming this way to help fight this monstrosity of a fire. While Chris kept his eyes on the road (or at least what he could see) I turned on the camera and began filming from the passenger seat of our GMC Sierra, which was seemingly small next to the large engines.
We rounded the corner to Cressman’s, the general store that had been in operation since 1904. Instead of seeing the brown barn and white building with the cheery “Cressman’s” sign we saw jagged rebar and smoking piles of rubble. We had known that Cressman’s had burned, but were still not prepared to see the graveyard of what was. The whole mountain side behind and in front of the beloved general store was gone. No trees, no homes, nothing but ash and darkness.
As a child I remember being able to barely see out of the backseat window. When we would drive to my family’s cabin in Shaver, I always knew we were close when the tall trees began fill the frame of the window, the only things I could really see from my child sized point of view. I will always have the memory of that drive burned into my mind, which I will cherish forever since the same drive nearly 20 years later is now legitimately burned, and will take years to regrow. My children will never experience these forests the way I did.
We drove into where my family’s cabins stood and I began to cry. They were still there. There was no fire immediately surrounding them; they have a chance! Since my grandfather had not planned to be evacuated for more than 2 days (none of us saw this coming) Chris and I retrieved some belongings for him to make his extended stay away from home more comfortable. As we locked up his door we both took a moment and listened. There was silence. No animals, wind, or even fire crackled. The earie lack of noise was similar to that of a fresh snowstorm, insulating the ground and absorbing any noise big or small. I had wished this was a snowstorm.
After checking the status on another 30+ homes and neighborhoods we finally arrived at the Neely house. She was still there, looking warm and inviting just as usual. Mama Neely had not been home in a month due to her car accident, so everything was left as-was from that morning she had headed out to work, anticipating returning home later. I cried. I walked inside and sat on the stairs that lead up to the bedrooms and began sobbing. I was overcome with gratefulness that our home had been spared thus far, remembering our friends’ homes down the mountain who did not share the same fate. Chris turned the generator on and we began to search high and low for mom’s cat, Leia. Unsuccessful, I left food and water out for her in case she made an appearance.
The Belly of the Beast
Once we knew our home was still standing we returned to the truck and continued on our mission to document the fire. We drove to Shaver Lake, and saw nothing on the horizon. The line where the sky met the lake was blurred, making the depth perception something of an illusion. We drove all the way to Big Creek where the fire started, fighting off the tears as we drove through the blackened stretch of decimated forest. Once again remembering sunny drives with my love, the top of the MG down, my hair blowing everywhere in the wind… I longed for that memory to be real as the smoke made it hard to breathe, even through our smoke masks.
In Big Creek, I was relieved to see the power plant intact as well as the penstocks which happened to be my favorite hike. It appeared the online news was once again not 100% factual as the schoolhouse and church still remained upright even though they were reported to be destroyed. Despite the 2 structures still being whole, the surrounding homes were not as lucky. A whole street was destroyed by the fire. After speaking with a fireman, he said the fire had reached 2000 degrees, melting glass and basically anything else. There was nothing left of these homes except chimneys that stood like headstones in each land plot, a reminder of what was that is no longer.
Exposed plumbing pipes gushed water, washing over the ruble, creating the only noise in the entire area. We stood back and looked at the street, cameras in hand, and realized we had seen this before. What we saw was a neighborhood leveled by disaster with messy wires here and there and what was left of random belongings burnt in place where their owners had left them, most likely expecting to return- a scene from a horror film. As Chris and I documented the tragedy we remained respectful. Although there were no front doors or walls those homes still belonged to others and we were not invited in.
The smoking street and sepia sky reminded me of a dystopian society, perhaps written in detail by Stephen King. I love reading Kings novels, but never intended on living in one. We said a prayer for the families whose homes were lost and the animals that were unable to escape. Sealing our prayer with good intentions we drove back down the mountain to Shaver Lake where we captured the last shots of the day. Despite the mountain being busy with police and fire personnel, it felt empty without the regular hustle and bustle of the town. We passed Shaver Lake Pizza, instantly craving their veggie combo and wishing we could just pop in like normal to take a warm box home to share with family. Their neon “open” sign was off, along with every other business that had been evacuated. it was day 5 without power in the town, and the thought of thawing fridges and freezers quickly stunted our appetite.
“You smell like a forest fire!” Terrill said as we walked through her front door, with pizza in hand. It was not Shaver Lake Pizza, but Me-N-Eds was a decent alternative. Despite everyone’s judgement of our odor, Terrill’s dog Maisey could not get enough of us and buried her sniffer into my pant leg. Mama Neely was sitting in the recliner with her ankle elevated to help circulation and continue the healing process, and our best friend Clarke came over to join us for dinner and a debriefing. We melted into Terrill’s leather couch, careful not to carry our sent everywhere with us and stuffed our faces with pizza. After our stomachs started to fill, we took a deep breath and began to talk about our emotionally taxing day.
Round Two In Hell
I put on my same smoke drenched clothes that I had worn previously, unbothered by the strong mesquite smell. I have always been the person that loved smelling like a bonfire the morning after sitting around the fire pit, roasting marshmallows and being with friends but this time it was not good memories the smoke was associated with. We drank coffee, briefed, then hugged my family goodbye; a new routine we had developed over the past week. Loading back into the truck, we had direct orders from China Peak Mountain Resort to retrieve the necessary office items so they could continue work preparing for the 2020/21 season from down in the Valley where many employees had evacuated to. We checked in with the officer at the first checkpoint and continued to the PIO to check in again with them before ascending back to the hellscape at 6000 ft.
The road to China Peak was bare, no trees or greenery remained and the smoke was thick as ever. Highway 168 began to disappear from the front of our hood, making us thankful that we knew the way to the Ski Resort like the backs of our hands. At 7000 feet there was a break in the smoke, the sun shining through like a magnificent sign of hope. Upon our arrival to China Peak we were stopped by a sheriff brigade who questioned our presence. We explained our “mission” and after some proof, convincing, and promising to be quick we were able to retrieve the items requested by the management and loaded it all in the truck. The ski resort was being heavily patrolled due to avalanche explosives being set off by the fire, which meant we were unable to check the back lot to see the status of our Hobie 18 Magnum Catamaran, Hobie Wan Kenobi, which is a parking lot princess when not gliding across Huntington Lake in the afternoon winds. We were able to confirm with the kind fireman from San Francisco that our Hobie Wan had survived and was nice enough to send photos after he got approval from his captain.
Feeling absolutely accomplished in our mission for China Peak we drove down the mountain to the Neely home where we cleaned out the fridge (you’re welcome, Mama Neely) and looked for the elusive Leia cat. I immediately noticed the Shiba cat food was licked clean and there were new feathers stuck in the door mat… she was here. We took a quick look around the immediate area when I heard a bird chirping, the first animal I had heard during this whole ordeal. Realizing it was unusual, I had an instinct to check it out. I rounded the corner and saw the huntress Leia, crouched and about to pounce on her winged prey. Yelling to Chris “SHE’S HERE!” I scared the bird and Leia looked back at me with her green eyes with the most annoyance I have seen from a cat. She meowed, then quickly escaped my reach.
We spent the next 20 minutes trying to coax Leia out from under the neighbor’s deck, but she refused. As we were on our bellies trying to capture the little murder mittens, 3 police cars drove past. It did not look good from their point of view. We looked up from under the deck and saw that the cars had pinned Chris’s truck in his driveway, and the officers began searching through his truck and opened the door to the house. Chris, who was wearing his khaki green shorts and a thin T-shirt, came over the ridge and from 25 feet away said “Can I help you officers?”
A gun was drawn on my husband. He remained calm and explained that this was his home. We were trying to capture his mom’s cat who had been alone here for 4 days. The various equipment and office supplies in the truck belonged to the Ski Resort, and we had papers to prove we were given authorization to retrieve it. The gun was finally holstered, and the officer in charge asked for ID. Of course, we gave him our information and were honest with our whereabouts. None of the public (except the friends we relayed home status’s to) knew we were on the mountain, unlike those who were posting live streams. When we were leaving China Peak, the officer there had reminded us that we were not allowed to venture anywhere besides our own residence, and we didn’t. This was our home. Unable to answer what we were doing wrong, the officer in charge was upset with Chris’s knowledge of Media and Journalist Protection eventually just taking our pictures and writing down our license plate. The two other officers were very kind and compassionate towards the situation, I light heartedly asked the one closest to me if he happened to have a cat net in his cruiser. Unfortunately he did not.
With adrenaline still rushing through us, the police left and Chris and I tried our best to capture sweet Leia, but just as cats are… she was stubborn. Unable to stick around much longer (especially after having a gun pointed at Chris) we decided to leave buckets of water around the house and enough food to last the tabby cat a good week or so, especially if she was successful in hunting. We stood in the doorway and closed our eyes to seal our good energy and protections in the home getting a good look at it all just in case. We locked the door one last time then drove off the mountain, and back to our family who were eager to hear about our misadventures. It was 5:00 p.m. and we were exhausted, emotionally and physically. We decided it would be best to stay in Fresno one more night to try and catch up on the sleep we had missed.
9:00 a.m. Saturday, September 12th: My throat was dry and felt like I licked an ash tray. Despite a long hot shower with lots of Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Castile Soap I still carried the scent of fire on me, marked for what will probably be eternity– or until I cut my hair again. I rolled over to look at my darling husband, mouth ajar and slightly drooling while his limbs were sprawled all over looking like a starfish out of water. A very cute starfish. I gently woke up my sleeping sea star and we began to slowly get ready for our return home to Avocet.
One last lovely breakfast around the family table with my Aunt and Uncle, we were so thankful to have had the opportunity to stay with them. My Aunt Carol joined us again right before Chris and I said our goodbyes. We drove to Terrill’s to bid adieu to she and Mama Neely as well, who were still getting a kick out of our run in with the cops the day prior. I don’t blame them for laughing, who the heck gets a gun drawn on them at their own home? We thanked Terrill for opening her home to our healing Mama and gave Mama Neely a hug goodbye before we began our drive back to our floating home. Big benefit of living on a sailboat: you can sail away from freaking fires. I guess unless you are on fire.. Whatever, you get my point!
Almost heaven, West Virginia…Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River… The smoke followed us all the way down until the Grapevine on Hwy 99. Blue sky greeted us as we descended down the mountain (I think of it more as a hill) and our lungs were thankful for the break. For the first time in days we had music playing, and fought through the throat pain to sing along to John Denver, a sense of normalcy as we drove through the golden Southern California hills getting closer to our boat, sweet boat. Country roads, take me home to the place I belong…
Home at last. It is the night of September 13th, and the Creek Fire has hit 200,000 acres with 10% containment. After spending a whole week living anxiously in the moment, I am reminded that not everyone shares the same insight to this fire as I do. Since returning home, I have noticed that people are already trying to turn this disaster into an argument blaming the Sierra Club for basically banning logging or solely blaming climate change. I can tell you right now that it is not just one of these to blame, but actually both. Climate change has created a warmer, drier environment that allows fires to thrive and gain traction quickly; combine that with a mismanaged forest with millions of dead trees and you have a timber box ready to ignite. Despite the irritating comments and arguments that have started to populate, I refuse to lose sight of the most important part of this situation: helping our community rebuild and preventing this from happening again.
As we are unable to physically start rebuilding I have been working hard to find ways to help our community. For the next 2 months, Chris and I will be donating our YouTube earnings to the fire victims directly while also keeping an updated list of active GoFundMe‘s so people can find them all in one place. You can help raise relief funds for the fire victims by watching our videos and not skipping the ads! Every view is money earned for the relief fund. While in the “what’s next” mindset, I am also taking steps to research environmental sustainability and responsible logging to try and educate the public on healthy forests. We are the Earths custodians, it is about time we act like it.
Thank you all for the kind words and support this past week, Chris and I are so grateful to have a wonderful friend group spanning far and wide who care about us and our families. We appreciate you all and look forward to throwing a fat party when 2020 (and COVID) is over! We are so close. Stay safe out there, and thank a firefighter.
Stay safe out there,
Marissa and Chris