Victoria Bell

It was Aunt El’s birthday. She was driving up from San Diego to Grandma Ellen’s cabin on Dowville East, the cabin that had been home to us for the last two months. “Us” is my husband, Nick, myself, and my two boys, James and Luke, our sweet mountain toddlers-in-training. Nick was on leave from the Marine Corps, and we were in a period of transition where we were living in various homes and locations – so the cabin became a haven of stability for us.

It was September 4, 2020; the boys and I had spent all day inside the cabin, a rarity, as we practically lived in those mountains or in the dirt any time we weren’t eating or sleeping. That day, we had a job to do: make birthday posters and a Speculoos cake for Aunt El – we couldn’t wait until she arrived. A delicious birthday dinner of chicken tacos was preceded by our two naked toddlers running around and jumping on the couches after bath time, with the Huntington mountain scape in the background. It was heaven, as every day of the two months spent up there was to us.

My mother-in-law, Deborah, then informed us that there was a small fire in Big Creek, the way my father-in-law intended to drive home. After warnings to avoid the route, he drove down anyway. Words like “Minor” and “Harmless” eased our worries and allowed us to sleep soundly that night, but upon waking, something was obviously wrong. Smoke. Smoke everywhere. Deborah went to work trying to gather information while Ellyn and I tried to appear as if nothing was unusual – for the boys, of course – but despite our best efforts, we vacillated between worry and denial. Finally, Ellyn, Deborah, and James, my three-year-old, were tired of waiting and reading infrequent updates on the status of the fire, decided to walk toward Mushroom Rock in an attempt to, “scope out the situation,” as my San Diego sheriff sister-in-law stated. I stayed home with my sleeping one-year-old as the smoke increased by the minute.

Ten minutes later: sirens. A loud speaker. It was time to pack. Before the law enforcement even arrived, I was literally running through the cabin, up and down the stairs, packing everything I could. Car seats. Ugh, why didn’t I put those in Aunt El’s truck as soon as she arrived? Nick had been gone for three days at that point on a work trip, and the responsible me would have put car seats in a vehicle to allow for immediate evacuation.

Evacuation. A word I never thought I would use in my life. We were evacuating the cabin – our solace, our happiness, our everything for the last two months.

So I ran. And packed. In retrospect, I should have thrown the clothes that were in the dirty laundry basket into a bag – advice I read several months later, but something that I will never forget. As I packed, the police arrived to tell me what I already knew: we had to leave. Evacuate. There was that word again. But my son, my mother and sister-in-law were still walking! I was fearful, but calm. I had to control what I could – packing. Food, clothes, whatever I could fit. Finally, the hikers returned, and we were all packing together, half anxiously, and half angrily. If this was nothing, we were losing precious days in Huntington. If this was something, where do we go from here?

We were one of the last cabins to drive down Dowville, toward 168; a familiar drive. Never did we ever think that the landscape we drove past a hundred times last summer would look so very different when we returned. Line Creek. Beautiful Line Creek. It still brings tears to our eyes six months later.

Our plan was to stay with Deborah and her husband, Allyn, my in-laws, to “Wait out the fire.” They lived in Alder Springs, not too far away, so we assumed we’d be back in the cabin in two days’ time. That night, Ellyn and I ate dinner on the balcony as we watched the ridge light up like a string of orange Christmas lights. It was surreal, and exciting in a way, as if we were experiencing something big, but of course we feared for the survival of the cabin and for the entirety of Huntington Lake.

The next morning, the sky in Auberry was heavy. The smoke penetrated every aspect of life – the sky, the trees, the house. The sun was a brilliant red, and James noted the “Fireball” in the sky. Oh, sweet boy, it is a fireball indeed. Later that morning, again we heard the dreaded word: Evacuate. Evacuate your in-law’s home, the home your father- in-law took 30 years to build by hand; the home your husband spent his childhood and formative years, the home that made him the man he is today. Evacuate this home. To where? We were nomads before the cabin, and now we were lost.

The fire became very real that day. The denial was gone. The realization of the gravity of this fire set in, and we knew we had to make other plans. Like Ellyn and I felt the night before, we were experiencing something big. Big and terrible.

So, we left. Deborah packed up her emergency box of sentimental family items as she so responsibly had on an “In case of emergency” list. Allyn, my father-in-law stayed. He stayed until the bitter end, which tragically, was an ash-covered foundation that was once a home. It was gone. 30 years of labor and of course, love, was wiped out. Allyn left in time, thank the Lord, but reluctantly. He, they, left behind everything, and it was gone.

Six months feels like a long time, but the night the Creek Fire started feels like yesterday. My husband, Nick, and I talk about our life at the cabin almost every day. When we’re not talking about it, Nick is thinking about it. He grew up at the cabin in Huntington Lake, the family cabin owned by Grandma Ellen, the incredible matriarch of her line. Nick’s memories extend further than the farthest tree, and his soul lives in those creeks. Mine does too now. We were married at Mushroom Rock, we honeymooned at the cabin, and our oldest son took some of his first steps up the dirt driveway.

The cabin survived, but Nick’s family home burned. Line Creek is a moonscape, but Home Creek remains intact at first glance. For every tragedy, an aspect of the forest also remains untouched. The fingers of the Creek Fire extended far and wide, but they didn’t reach everything. This is the hope we hold onto. We pray that the creeks are unchanged, and that as we explore deeper into the Sierra mountains, we will find more life than death.
Our hope is for the boys to learn to swim near the docks of Dowville, skip rocks by the dams, and catch fish in the same creeks that Nick grew up fishing. We have hope.

Our hearts are in Huntington, now and forever.