Steve Michael McQuillan

Denial Until the Darkness Descended

 

I was in South Lake Tahoe on the evening of September 4 on a four day family vacation that my daughter had arranged for all of us a year earlier. At approximately 7pm I received a page notifying me of a wildland fire near Camp Sierra and that our department had been dispatched. I went to bed that night understanding that the fire was less than an acre in size and nothing that I needed to concern myself with. In the morning I learned to my shock that the fire had grown to 6,000 acres and that there was a possibility that I would need to return to Fresno before our vacation ended. I called around Lake Tahoe as soon as car rental offices opened and rented the very last car in the area and waited that Saturday to see what happened that day. By 5pm I learned the fire had grown to 36,000 acres and decided that I needed to return to Shaver. I left at midnight for Shaver having no idea of what was ahead.

 

I arrived at our station in Shaver at 7am and met up with Mark, a fellow member of the department and great friend. We deployed with an engine to the Sierra Marina and took position alongside another engine and an ambulance from American Ambulance on the upper parking lot to await events. We understood that the fire was miles away and fully expected that we would spend the day sitting there. About an hour after parking there we were surprised when flames suddenly appeared on the top of the ridge to the northwest. These flames crested the ridge and began moving down the slope towards 168. We were pulled out and told to return to Shaver and await further developments. Mark and I returned to the station and were told to deploy to the West Village. A number of engines were already deployed on the very west edge of the village including 2 engines from Company 60 (Shaver Lake) and the Company 60 water tender as well as a number of engines with the Office of Emergency Services.  Notwithstanding what we had just been through at the Sierra Marina I sincerely did not believe the fire was of any immediate concern as it still miles and miles away. Thinking back it now seems odd that I was in such a state of denial but I really did not really believe that the town itself could ever be in any real danger. That kind of thing happens elsewhere, not here. We spent time getting to know the men and women staffing the OES engines who we learned were mostly from fire departments in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

A couple of hours after setting up in the West Village I noticed what I thought to be a thin faint column of smoke across the valley from us (Mt. Stevenson) and pointed it out those around me. That single column began to grow darker and wider and was soon accompanied by a number of other columns of smoke. I was awakened to the reality of the threat when I saw the first flicker of orange flame peak through the smoke. That flicker quickly grew until the entire ridge opposite us was a mass of flames and to my horror began to descend eastward down that far slope and roar up the slope just to the west of where we were deployed. The sky grew dark with smoke turning the afternoon into night. I was shocked at that moment to hear thunder directly overhead and recall feeling so small. Until that instant I had not really accepted the reality of what was facing all of us. 

 

The flames grew in height as the fire climbed higher up the slope. The crews laid out their hose lines and prepared to attack those flames even as those flames rose to 150 feet. Mark and I were instructed to place our engine 50 yards behind the frontline to protect those crews from any spot fires that might brew up behind them. Out of the darkness a swirling mass of orange and red embers the size of my hand suddenly rose into the sky and began dropping all around us. Those embers immediately ignited the grass between us and where the crews were positioned at the fire’s edge. The spot fire quickly grew to about 70 feet wide and 25 feet across. Mark and I jumped out of the engine, pulled out the hose line and attacked that spot fire that fire with a combination of water and hand tools. Once that fire was extinguished we returned to our engine to monitor for further spot fires. Looking to the west I could see the silhouettes of the firefighters against the orange, yellow and red flames towering above them.  The flame wall moving towards us looked to be between 100 and 150 feet high and I wondered what any of us could possibly do against that wall of flame. The flames moved closer and closer until I heard someone yell “Ok boys, we’ve reached our breaking point. Everyone know the escape route?” At that moment I recall telling myself that if we were ordered out the flames would take out the West Village and all of Shaver thereafter.

 

I have no way to describe how I felt at that moment looking into what I now remember thinking was the face of hell. I look back now at the seconds that followed and so clearly recall standing there praying for a miracle. I felt so helpless knowing there was nothing that any of us could do against that wall of fire. Then suddenly, within a matter of seconds, that miracle arrived. Like a breath from God the wind shifted and the wall of flame suddenly moved away from us and off to the south. The town was saved.

 

Sadly those flames continued their devastation moving off into the Dogwood Community and threatening Ockenden, Appleridge and Ridge Top. It never even crossed my mind that the fire could reach Cressman’s or the Pineridge or Alder Springs Communities as it did the next night. I feared our home in Ockenden would be lost when the fire crossed 168. But that was for another day and yet more prayers.