Ari Arroyo

The Creek Fire

By:  Ari Arroyo

Engineer & Firefighter, Pine Ridge Volunteer Fire Dept.

Secretary/Treasurer, Pine Ridge Property Owners Association

 

The Creek Fire was the largest single fire in the history of state of California and burned 379,895 acres. I am a firefighter and engineer and my husband, Peter, is a firefighter with the Pine Ridge Volunteer Fire Department. We were here from the beginning and will forever be affected by what happened, what we saw, what we did, and the people we met.

The Creek Fire started in Friday, September 4, 2020. No one thought it would make it down to Cressman Road but still, we had to evacuate on Monday, September 7th. Before departing our fire department went to every home in the community to make sure they had left or were in the process of leaving. It was eerie leaving with nobody left in the community just the evacuation signs at every property entrance. We put two of our fire engines and a patrol at what we hoped was a safe spot in case the fire did come in and then all we could do was leave. The fire came down into the town of Shaver Lake on Monday the 7th and then the most dreaded news of all came, that the fire had taken out Cressman’s General Store. It then jumped the highway and entered Cressman Road and the Pine Ridge community. It was so hot and violent that the firefighters who had been protecting Cressman’s Store had to leave almost immediately. It is estimated that the fire came into the Cressman Road / Pine Ridge community with 50 to 60 mile winds and 100 to 200 foot high flames and that it made it all the way through our community in only 30 to 40 minutes.

On Tuesday, the 8th no one was allowed up to Cressman Road, nor were they allowed to come down from the town of Shaver Lake above because it was still too hot. On Wednesday morning, the 9th, they allowed the fire departments into Cressman Road and the other surrounding areas that had been devastated by the fire. That morning those still available from the Pine Ridge Volunteer Fire Department caravanned up from Fresno. Although we knew what had happened and what we should expect to see, we were shocked and horrified at how the fire had decimated our mountain. We entered Cressman Road and started to see what had happened to our very special little community which we took such pride in. Almost all the trees were burned and smoldering or still on fire, stumps were shooting up flames everywhere and the ground was black, hot and smoking. The ground was strewn with branches and trees blocking our way so it was a very slow go moving down the road. And then we started seeing the houses that had burned. There were large houses and small cabins and all had been reduced to a pile of ash only a foot or two tall. There are really no words to express how we felt seeing the devastation. We lost 66 of the 88 homes in our community.

And then the real work began. . .

There were not many firefighters left who were able to come up because most of their homes had burned down. A few of those who lost their homes came up when they could and our chief, James Parr, although he lost his home he was up here all the time with us. We would come up the mountain every morning and stay here until late at night, putting out fires, cutting line and protecting homes that had not burned. One of the strangest feelings was when we would simply drive by a small fire or a burning stump and not put it out because there were too many bigger flames that had to be dealt with. Our first day up we were protecting one of the homes that had survived, trying to put out the flames near the home and I called out for assistance on the radio. I called out a few times and eventually someone responded and came to help. Later that day my chief told me to be careful that I didn’t sound frantic when I called out on the radio. Later that day I was up at my house and there were two other engines at the bottom of my driveway and I called out on the radio asking, “Can you please send up another engine, there are 25 to 30 foot flames on the hillside beside my driveway”. I have never spoken so calmly and it was funny because one of the outside firefighters heard my radio call and said, “How can she sound so calm, the flames are at her house”.

The days were long and exhausting but at the end of every day we always felt proud of what we had been doing. When we left the mountain at the end of the day we were exhausted, dirty, smelled like smoke and hungry. After our second day back on the mountain we stopped by a restaurant in Fresno to get dinner. It was about 10:45 at night and when I went up to the hostess she said we’d have to wait 30 to 45 minutes for a table. While we were fighting the fire I was strong and resilient but then I was done for the day and when she said that to me I almost broke into tears. Looking back at that moment it’s actually rather humorous.

I took pictures and videos whenever I could and every morning I would get up at the crack of dawn, write an email to the Pine Ridge property owners and attach a video and/or pictures. Peter and I would then have breakfast and return to the mountain to fight the fire. We were not alone though. Strike teams came in from across the state as well as a few from other states.  Frequently one of the outside fire companies would say to me, “Thank you for helping us”.  And every time someone said that I would reply that we were not helping them, they were helping us and that they needed to know that they were not just fighting fires, they were giving hope!

I was one of the lucky few who did not lose their home in the fire.  Why was my home saved?  The fire blew in hard and about an eighth of a mile before it got to my house the fire took a deep breath and blew just a little bit south and wrapped behind and around my house and a few other houses near mine.

Because my home had survived and there were a few other homes nearby that had survived as well, the fire companies often stayed on my property on their down time and overnight. Often you would find from three to six fire engines (including mine) by my house.  It was quite a sight.  One day I walked out my front door and noticed that the driveway around my fire engine was all wet.  I walked down to talk to the other firefighters and asked if anyone knew why.  A handsome, young firefighter came up to me, stood tall, puffed up his chest and said, “We washed your rig for you ma’am”.  It was like something out of a movie and I was delighted.

A few times we made dinner for the firefighters who were staying on our property overnight and then at about 5:15 the next morning I would get up and make them all fresh coffee to start their day.  One night there were twelve firefighters eating at our table and in my kitchen and I asked if they would do something for my community.  I took a video of them all and at the end they all raised their glasses and said “We’re here for you Pine Ridge”.  It was wonderful, but the funniest part was that after I took the video a few of them asked if they could do a retake because they thought they could do better.  What great people!

One day in late October when the outside fire companies had left and Peter had gone back to work, I was standing on my deck and looked out to see that there was only my lone fire engine and no other people or vehicles and everything was quiet.  It was a strange feeling and I did not know what to do with myself.  I felt totally lost at that moment.  But time went by and we still had the occasional flare up or burning tree and sometimes the outside fire companies would come back or call to make sure everything was okay.  I realized then that the world would go on and although our beautiful forest would be forever changed, there would be regrowth and rebuilding and we would find a way to come back stronger than ever.

There are so many stories to tell, so many people to thank, so many people to help, so many memories that will live with us forever.