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Experiencing the threat of wildfires

by Lisa Gavon
R-C Alpine Bureau
View of the Acorn Fire Flames from 1987
Lisa Gavon

“Quick, get your shoes on. We are heading out!” I told my sons. They could tell by my tone it was serious. “Something is wrong. I can feel it.”

Our senses heightened, every smell, sound, and movement brought more intense concentration. I did not know what we were looking for at this point. We could smell no smoke, but there was a rift in the fabric of our forested landscape.

The houses are spread far apart in Alpine County, and the deep green woods are thick. We took many different paths, searching for anything out of the ordinary.

We kept running, following some deep intuition, until we found it. A burn pile started by a new owner had been left unattended. He had gone back to his home in the city. When we discovered it, flames had overtaken the top.

We rushed home and called the late Dan Doyal, our dearest friend on the fire department. He phoned it in, drove the brush truck to the site, doused the flames and brought peace back to our little corner of the world. Without the Woodfords Fire Department, that burn pile would have ignited yet another inferno. It was one more miracle they could put on their long list.

My sons and I were active in the Volunteer Fire Auxiliary, bringing hot chocolate and sandwiches to extended or late night incidents, washing the fire trucks, replenishing supplies, and helping with fundraising events. They were a brave crew, led by inspiring people like the late Mike Warren and Paul Washam.

My first experience with wildfire was watching from the corner of Highway 88 and Emigrant Trail as the helicopters dropped flame retardant across my 2 1/2 acre homestead. It was 1986 and the fire had started from a backhoe being driven without a spark arrestor. It claimed the historic Fredericksburg school house that was right next to the cemetery and a barn on a nearby ranch.

The flame retardant is made from a binding clay and what is actually a component in fertilizers. It actually enriches the soil. Some said it would disappear in the first rain, but I had trouble spraying it off with a high power hose. With the help of the late Ann McGuinness, we washed every inch of that land, along with every object and structure.

Keeping my crawling little one away from the retardant required constant vigilance, and it was a difficult time. But it was so much better than coming home to a pile of ashes: a horrific tragedy so many have had to face.

I lost only a few fences and parts of outbuildings. Countless people have had to put their lives together again starting with nothing: reestablishing everything from the ground up. My heart goes out to those having to face this kind of devastating loss. My house, barn, windmill, and orchard were all saved by the firefighter’s efforts, and I feel so very thankful to this day.

This intense experience was followed by the Acorn Fire the very next year. This time I was living on a hillside covered with manzanita. It came out of nowhere in the most unexpected way. I looked out the back window and saw the sky suddenly filled with dense smoke. The flames were licking the solid wall of bushes at the top of a little rise right behind my house.

Once again, I thought my home would be gone in minutes. There was nothing to stop the advancing wall of fire. I loaded my two sons and our dog into the car. We stopped at the end of the dirt road and looked back. Although he was only 6 years old, my son was more than aware the house looked like it was soon to be engulfed.

“What about all our books and things inside?” he asked.

“Look around, what is in our car?” I queried in response.

“Well, there is my brother, our dog, and you and me,” he answered.

“There you go!” I said, “We have everything we need!”. He smiled a calm, peaceful smile. We had everything that mattered.

Except for toothbrushes! Evacuating, we headed into Markleeville, buying the necessities at the General Store. Steve and Ellen Martin were generous and kind enough to let us stay at their house. Those three days before we could go back home are a blur in my mind. Remarkably, the house was not taken.

The late Nancy Thornburg reported that the Acorn burned 6,550 acres, destroyed 24 homes and damaged another 56 buildings. Fortunately, there were no injuries or lives lost.

Through these and other experiences, I have learned two important lessons. One is to be prepared. Have your most irreplaceable documents, photos, and historical family items staged and ready to load into the car easily. Pet carriers along with an emergency supply of food and water for them need to be there too.

Living in the mountains, it is a good idea to have what we call a “bug-out” bag with you at all times anyway. There are lots of other dangers besides fires, and this pack should ideally contain all the survival essentials you would need to make it through a couple of days.

Being prepared also includes essential fire clearing including limbing up the trees, removing anything dead, and reducing as much fuel as possible from around your property. Currently, that is a required 100 feet in Alpine County.

The second lesson is perhaps the most important though. That is not to worry. We all know that worrying “does not add a single hour to our lives.” It is easier said than done. After another threatened evacuation in the Hope Vally Fire, and another just a short mile away from my house, I recognized it was a clear choice. I could easily be consumed by all the “what ifs”. It would be such a waste to focus on what may or may not happen, and let the precious moments of life just slip away unappreciated. Prepare as best you can; then let it go.

My understanding is that fire is a living entity: it has rules of its own. In my neighborhood, it has taken one house, not touched the next, and consumed the bordering home in a raging ball of flame. I have friends who were diligent in keeping their home cleared. Their house burnt in the Angora Fire, while their neighbors house, who had done no fire clearing, remained standing.

As with everything else on this earth, there are no guarantees. We can be thankful that there are men and women brave enough to go out and stand up to this tempestuous beast. We can trust and have faith along with being responsible. We can accept the events of our lives as they come to us, no matter how challenging, knowing that we can still be at peace, even when uncertainty surrounds us.