Opening for the season April 1, 2023. Spring hours: Friday-Sunday 11-3
Vince Wiggins | Mile High, Alder Springs
My name is Vince Wiggins, and my husband is Keith Davis. We bought 10 acres on Sharin Woods Rd in the spring of 2000. Sharin Woods means Sharing Woods. They left off the g from Sharing to make it sound more country or hillbilly like. As one neighbor told me years ago, “It means we’re sharin dah woods!” He said it with a southern, hillbilly accent, too. He also said, “We wanted it to sound like the hillbillies that we are.” Anyway, Sharin Woods Rd is in the Pine Ridge area across Auberry Road from Mile High. After purchasing our little slice of paradise, we spent every weekend and vacation day for the next few years clearing our 10 acres. We had a well drilled, brought in the electrical line and finally in 2004 we started building our home. It was a 3000 square foot log home. We personally dug the footings for the concrete to be poured in and we installed the floor for the main level after a crew had erected the cinder block walls of the basement. Keith and I with the help of my sister Joyce and her late husband Chuck raised the log walls. Later with help of a friend (and his crane) we put in place the main beam and log rafters that would support the roof of our home 25 feet above the main floor. Over an almost two-year period with the help of professional electricians, plumbers, and carpenters we finished our home. It was far from the largest or nicest home in the area, but it was ours and we loved it.
In 2009 along with our friend and business partner we purchased Cressman’s General Store. Keith managed the store and using his charming personality and business sense he turned Cressman’s into a thriving community business. I continued to commute to Fresno daily to teach elementary school but now shopping for Cressman’s became an almost daily part of my routine after school. It was a lot of work, but it was definitely a labor of love. For 10 years with the help of many wonderful and dedicated employees we developed and expanded the business. We sold Cressman’s in 2019 to our friends and mountain neighbors Ty and Tara Gillett.
On the afternoon of Friday, September 4, 2020, I had been at the lake with our dog Buster. As I left the lake fire trucks were headed up hill. On the way home I stopped at Cressman’s, and I heard the news. There was a fire in the Big Creek area. From our deck later that evening Keith and I watched as the dark plume of smoke rose in the distance with a reddish, orange glow from the fire reflected in it.
The next morning (Saturday), I went to Cressman’s to fill gas cans for our generator. If PG&E had to shut off the power, we wanted to keep our well pumping water. Our friend Mark Elizondo came over and installed a transfer switch at the well so we could power the well pump with the generator. We never got the opportunity to use it.
We put rainbird sprinklers on posts all around the perimeter of the house to soak the area in case the fire reached us. Although, we could not actually believe the fire would come that far before containment. As Ty at Cressman’s had said earlier that day, “It will have to burn over 100,000 acres in order to reach us!” Little did we know…
Sunday, September 6, 2020, we had not slept much at all. It seemed as though all we could do was stare at the glow on the other side of Stevenson Mountain and wonder, what was burning? Whose home in Big Creek, Huntington or Camp Sierra was burning? We hoped and prayed they all evacuated safely. Thick smoke filled Jose Basin below us. We could no longer see the homes in Dog Wood across the basin. Later we couldn’t even see the basin. Our phones were going crazy with messages from friends and family checking on us. We were determined at that point to stay and fight the fire.
As the time passed one by one neighbors called or texted to let us know they were evacuating. We slowly began to pack. I hooked the jeep to the back of our old, but classic RV, Gus the Bus. We loaded things in the back of my truck. We had not actually decided to leave but we thought we should get ready. We could now hear thunder. This was thunder generated by the fire. The Creek Fire was creating its own storm, a fire storm.
About 4:00 P.M. I was looking at a video shared on Facebook of the fire up by the Shaver Lake Dam and The Point. In the video I saw a wall of fire 30 – 100 feet high. It looked unstoppable! At the same time Keith was watching a news update and the weatherman said the winds were going to increase in the Shaver area by the next morning. We knew at that point that we had to leave. We did not want to risk our good health or our lives trying to protect the house. What would I tell Keith’s family if something went terribly wrong? We left notes explaining how to use the generator and our fire protection set up just in case some brave firefighters came to our home. Before leaving we stood in our living room holding hands. We cried and we prayed that our home would be spared God willing. We evacuated. I drove Gus the Bus towing the jeep and Keith followed in our truck. We didn’t think it would all burn. I didn’t want to feel like we were abandoning our beloved home! But we did.
We joined our good friends Drew and Allyson along with their 2 children Araya and Brooks. They had evacuated from Alder Springs to a ranch house off Wellbarn road in the Marshall Station area. Allyson’s mother, Vicky Brooks evacuated there as well. This home and ranch are owned by the Sierra Foothill Conservancy, Allyson’s employer. We are so grateful to SFC for their hospitality and help. We stayed there for two nights in Gus the Bus, parked next to the ranch house. It is a beautiful foothill area ranch surrounded by the table mountains, but it was hard to enjoy or appreciate the beauty. Thick smoke filled the air and worry filled our minds. We wanted to go home and check on things, but we were not allowed to. It was not safe.
Monday, Keith texted Ty at Cressman’s telling him that we could go shopping for supplies for the store. We knew he was trying to keep the store open for the first responders. Ty didn’t reply until late that night. We were shocked as we read his words, “It’s gone guys! I am so sorry! We tried to save it, but we couldn’t!” He said that everything at Cressman’s had burned in a matter of 15 – 20 minutes while he watched from the viewpoint at the top of the 4-lane. Ty sent us video clips and, we were in shock!
The next day Drew and Allyson received a message from a fire fighter friend. Their home, Vicky’s home and almost everyone’s home in the Alder Springs community had burned to the ground. I’ll never forget that moment. We were all crying as we tried to hold back the verbal sobs so we wouldn’t scare the kids. How do you keep telling them it will all be okay when they know it is not? At moments like this you began to realize that nothing will ever be the same. We knew we would be okay, and we were thankful that we were all safe, but now what?
The area we were staying in at the ranch was placed under evacuation warning, also. It was not mandatory for us to leave yet but we felt it was best. If the ranch had to evacuate there would be trucks and trailers evacuating livestock and we did not want to be in the way with our 36’ RV. The ranch has only one way in and one way out, so we left and relocated to the Madera Fairgrounds.
As we arrived at the fairgrounds, we received confirmation that our home had also burned. The pictures looked so horrifying that at first I kept saying, “That’s not our place. That doesn’t look right!” Keith kept telling me that it was our home. He said, “Look at the rocks around the flower bed and the rocks that lined the walkway to our front porch.” He was correct. As foreign as it looked, it was our home. We cried and sobbed again!
Bad times seem to bring out the best in people. Madera Fairgrounds was closed because of COVID-19, and they were not approved by the state to be an evacuation center. (We found out later that Cal Fire keeps the Madera Fairgrounds on reserve hold as a staging center because it is centrally located and has easy highway access.) But, as soon we told the Madera Fairground’s employees that we had lost our home in the fire and we came there because my sister Joyce had worked for years in the Madera Fair office, they welcomed us in and hosted us there for two weeks. We literally had this beautiful facility to ourselves. At times, it was just us and the security officers there.
Bad times seem to bring out the best in people. I can’t emphasize this enough. We were literally being bombarded with offers of help, places to stay, food, clothing, money. Family, friends, work colleagues, acquaintances, everyone wanted to help. We even had friends from high school days contacting us. My friends I had worked with at King Elementary showed up with food, gift cards and much needed hugs. Keith’s Gottschalks friends came through with two carloads of supplies and an overwhelming amount of money. We told them we would share with our neighbors who had lost their homes also. Their response was, “No! This is for you. Give us a list of names and we will help your neighbors, too.” And they did. I could go on and on with tales of generosity and empathy. The state of our community is STRONG!
After two weeks, we were allowed to visit our burned home for a few hours. We hoped to find mementos and things we could salvage. The pickings were slim. Everything was incinerated. Glass and light metal objects had melted. I couldn’t even find the license plate from a dirt bike that was in the garage. The license plate had melted along with countless other things. We sifted through ashes looking for mementos. I had three boxes of family photo albums that my mom had assembled from my childhood and an old, iced tea pitcher that my grandma had always used. They were nowhere to be found. So, we resolved to look to the future and look forward to the potential of a new beginning. The past is the past and we have beautiful memories to carry with us. It was now time to move on.
We have spent the last year traveling in our RV. We’ve been up and down the Oregon and California coast. We have RV’d to Lake Tahoe, the Eastern Sierras, the Grand Canyon, the Texas hill country and more. We have visited places in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, and Wyoming. Along the way we have visited many friends and family members. We enjoy life on the road. I must admit, I am a Nomad at heart but, we still have our roots firmly planted in the mountain side overlooking the Jose Basin.
A new barn is under construction. Plans for our new house are being drafted. It will be in a new location, with a better view but still on our Sharin Woods Road property. We look forward to the future in a new house on our old home property. We will live in the middle of the Creek Fire burn scar, and we plan on working with local foresters to help reforest and properly manage our area.