Tori Lysdahl-Goss

Tori Lysdahl-Goss | Okenden Ranch, Shaver

  5-8-22

DEFENDING OUR HOME and OCKENDEN RANCH

 

A Little Background

My name is Tori Lysdahl-Goss. I was raised in Shaver Lake and graduated from both Big Creek Elementary and Sierra High School. After many years away pursuing my career as a professional singer and actress, in 2013 I and my husband, David Goss, returned to Shaver, becoming full-time residents of Ockenden Ranch. David is a tax attorney and CPA practicing in the Fresno area. Growing up here, my family and I never really worried much about a devastating wildfire due, in large part, to the expert management of our forests by professional foresters such as John Mount. However, by 2015, and after years of severe restrictions on logging, historic drought and millions of dead and dying trees due to the unprecedented Bark Beetle infestation, we had to face the fact we were living in a tinder box just waiting for the strike of a match. Given this existential threat, David decided in 2016 to join the Shaver Lake Volunteer Fire Department (“SLVFD”) in order to acquire the firefighting knowledge and skills needed to successfully defend our home and community from a catastrophic fire which, in our view, wasn’t a matter of if, but when. So, over the next 4 years, David and I, along with our closest neighbor, Pat Caprioli (a retired City of Bakersfield Fire Department Captain with 35 years of firefighting experience), began preparing to defend our homes from the inevitable.

 

Preparing For The Worst Case Scenario

With the training and experience David was gaining as a SLVFD firefighter, he and Pat began to regularly discuss and strategize on how best to defend our homes and neighborhood. Initially, Pat was able acquire several hundred feet of surplus fire hose, nozzles and connectors from the Bakersfield Fire Department. David and I purchased Class A foam and applicators (the same type used by fire departments to suppress wood fires) to prevent the falling embers of an approaching wildfire from igniting “spot fires” on our decks and surrounding trees. We then strategically deployed three foam applicators (each attached to 300 feet of hose) around our house. In addition, as highly recommended by CAL FIRE for creating a “defensible space,” we limbed-up (cut and removed the lower branches known as “ladder fuel” from the bottom 10 to 12 feet of a tree) all the trees within a couple of hundred feet of our homes. This tactic ultimately gave us a big advantage during the Creek Fire by denying numerous spot fires the ladder fuel needed to get far enough up our trees to fully ignite them. Fire preparation didn’t end there. David sought and received expert tree falling instruction and coaching from local residents Jeff Young and Doug Koerper. They taught him how to safely drop, limb and buck almost all of the standing dead trees within 200+ yards of our homes. Getting those drought and Bark Beetle victims on the ground was extremely important because, as David had learned from fighting several small wildland fires in the Shaver Lake area, if dead trees are on the ground when they’re ignited by wildfire embers (sometimes called “firebrands”), they can often be successfully extinguished, or at least managed, with the application of water or foam from a fire hose. However, if those embers ignite a 100-200 foot tall standing dead/dying tree, it’s almost impossible to extinguish the resulting explosive fire (called “torching”) in the top of the tree, because wildland firefighting engines generally cannot pump water much higher than about 60 to 70 feet, thus leaving the top 50 to 100 feet to torch and produce enough radiant heat to then ignite other nearby trees, even if they’re green and healthy.

 

Worst Case Scenario Realized

 

Sadly, on the evening of September 4, 2020, our worst fears were realized. The Creek Fire erupted at Camp Sierra, growing from a 2-5 acre burn to a raging, out of control inferno within hours. The fire rapidly expanded over the Labor Day weekend and, by Sunday, September 6th, as it threatened Shaver Lake’s West Village, David and his fellow Company 60 SLVFD firefighters were called on to join CAL FIRE and US Forest Service crews in defense of several homes along Limber Lane. By then, Shaver Lake was under a mandatory evacuation order and, to my knowledge, I was the only civilian resident of Ockenden who’d refused to comply with the evacuation order, choosing instead to stay and help David and Pat defend our homes and, to the extent possible, our community. By 8:00 PM that evening, while David was battling the blaze in the West Village, I could see from our top floor the Creek Fire rushing down Stevenson Mountain and appearing to be heading towards Ockenden Ranch. I called David to alert him to the gut-wrenching sight I was witnessing. We both knew he couldn’t leave his post in the West Village, so he suggested that, to prevent wind driven embers from starting spot fires on the hillside below our home (which sits about 300 feet above Highway 168), I should start wetting down everything our hoses could reach. I immediately began doing that, continuing alone in the dark for the next 5 hours until about 1:00AM, when David finally arrived home after Company 60 was released from the West Village. Although exhausted, the imminent threat of fire was in the forefront of our minds and resulted in a sleepless night while we constantly scanned the surrounding dark wildland for any signs of approaching flames.

 

We’ve Got Fire

 

Fortunately, the fire spared us that night. However, by the next morning, Labor Day, September 7th, we could see and smell the smoke as it steadily advanced uphill from the Dogwood area below us. Given that, we worked feverishly to complete our final preparations. While Pat and David fine-tuned their placement of the approximately 500 feet of fire hose they had deployed around all sides of our home, I served as lookout, continuously hiking and surveilling the nearby landscape for any signs of fire. Suddenly, at about 1:30 PM, I caught the heartbreaking and knee-weakening sight of numerous spot fires popping up on our side of the highway. I yelled, “We’ve got fire!” to David and Pat, causing them to immediately shift from adjusting to activating the fire hoses. As the fire picked up momentum and marched towards us, bushes and trees instantaneously exploded into flames like Roman candles. It was about that time the very sobering realization hit me that we were likely going to be fighting this fire on our own because, from all indications, we were the only ones who knew that the Creek Fire had arrived in Ockenden Ranch. That is until, while David was out at the road charging (opening) the hydrant, a CAL FIRE Battalion Chief happened to drive by on patrol and asked him what he was doing and why on earth was he still here?!? David rapid-fire explained that the three of us had been preparing for several years to defend our homes against a fire like this and that we were currently doing exactly that because the fire had only moments earlier crossed Hwy 168 below us. Upon learning that the fire had jumped the highway (he’d been patrolling too far away to see this breach), he said he didn’t have any resources immediately available, but he’d try to secure some for us ASAP. We continued fighting the fire as it raced towards our home, eventually burning within 20 feet of our lower back deck at its closest point. Then, after about 20 minutes, as we desperately struggled to keep the fire at bay, to our utter amazement and eternal gratitude, the Battalion Chief returned with a CAL FIRE Strike Team, consisting of three engines, their crews and two bulldozers. The dozers went to work cutting a 50-60 foot wide arc-shaped fire break between our house and the flames. While Pat and the CAL FIRE crews fought the fire from the ground, David and I sprayed foam on our decks, windows and siding facing the fire, and on all of the trees within 20 to 30 feet of our structure. Each time a tree below us torched, exploding violently into 150+ foot flames, there would be a subsequent shower of burning embers and concussive blast of heat which would almost knock us off our feet. The firestorm’s deafening roar was akin to that of a jet engine, while it’s blistering heat burned like a blast furnace. Having no regulation fire gear myself, several times my hair and clothing ignited from the searing wind-driven firebrands, causing me at one point to scream at David to “FOAM ME!” He quickly did and it worked! Not only did it immediately smother the burning embers on me but, although there were thousands of them constantly raining down on everything around us, the foam prevented them from causing any damage.

 

Threat Contained – Vigilance Continues

 

Finally, after about six hours of battling the blaze with CAL FIRE, the threat to our immediate area was considered contained, though our burn scar and many dangerous “smoker holes” (where tree roots can burn for months underground) continued to smolder, making the air toxic and nearly unbreathable for weeks afterwards. CAL FIRE remained on Cold Springs Lane near our home for the next few days and nights in case the fire returned or flared up, some nights sleeping in their engines or on camping cots that Pat loaned them. Their amazing heroism was first proven to us by their very timely “HERE COMES THE CAVALRY!” response and, then again, by their vigilant patrolling of Ockenden Ranch for the next week or so. However, even though CAL FIRE remained close by, Pat and David took alternating two-hour shifts throughout each night, looking for any new threats to our homes or the rest of Ockenden Ranch. And, each night, I periodically scanned the wildland with binoculars for any sign of fire re-emergence. Adding to our serious concerns, was the fact that the fire cut off power on Labor Day evening to the pumps supplying water to Ockenden. We will be forever grateful to our good friend and neighbor, Doug Koerper, for loaning us his water buffalo (a large, portable water tank and pump), so we could extinguish any random flare-ups occurring near our property until water was restored.

 

Creek Fire Aftermath

 

Because David and I were among the very few who hadn’t evacuated, many of our neighbors, friends and acquaintances with cabins in the area contacted us for Creek Fire updates. I’d awaken every morning to numerous texts, emails and phone messages from panicky, distraught homeowners begging to know the status of their properties. One day, after checking on several Ockenden homes as requested, I hiked down our charred and still-smoking hillside to get a broader perspective of the devastation from the highway. While I was taking some photos, a Clovis PD cruiser passed by (on looter patrol), suddenly making a U-turn and roaring back to me, screeching to a stop. As both officers jumped out, unsnapping their holsters, they demanded, “What are you doing here?!?” I calmly explained why I was surveying the area after having stayed to help fight the fire. Stifling a laugh, the senior officer said, “No, you didn’t stay. EVERYONE evacuated! So, I’ll ask you again, what are you doing here?” As I again recounted the facts, the senior officer interrupted with, “What color is the paper tacked to the front of your house?” I told him it was red. He curtly insisted that that was impossible because red was only for residents who’d refused evacuation and clearly, EVERYONE was gone! Eventually, after running my driver’s license on their computer, they determined I was indeed a legitimate Ockenden resident but, nonetheless, they left me with this rather grim admonition; “Okay, you’re free to go home, but if we catch you ONE FOOT off your property again, you’re going to be arrested.” With that, I lost no time hiking up our steep hillside, thinking our encounter was over. Well, that is until I heard their patrol car skid to a stop in my driveway while I was unlocking the front door. Their eyes scanned our scorched hilltop, the sight of Doug’s massive water buffalo in our driveway and the numerous fire hoses criss-crossing our property, with their gazes eventually landing upon the bright RED “REFUSAL” evacuation notice stapled to our front fence post. There was an awkward moment of silence, then the younger officer suddenly blurted, “Oh my Gosh! I just realized you’re the people I saw on Channel 30 news a couple of nights ago! You really DIDN’T evacuate! You guys actually helped save your whole neighborhood! You’re HEROES!!!” I responded with, “Well thanks, but we just did what we felt we had to do.” Then, after noticing a disapproving glare from his superior officer, he briskly added, “But still, if we catch you off your property again, you’re going to jail. We clear?” I simply smiled and replied, “Crystal.”

 

Don’t Try This At Home

 

In closing, while we are immensely grateful that our preparation and CAL FIRE’s assistance helped us spare our homes and those of others in Ockenden Ranch from the Creek Fire, David and Pat both stress that NON-FIREFIGHTERS should NOT refuse to evacuate in favor of staying to personally defend their home against a massive wildland fire. Instead, they should COMPLY WITH ALL EVACUATION ORDERS!

 

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