Hickeys recall day of fire
When the Autumn Hills fire began its path of devastation, Dan Hickey was asleep on the couch. His wife Laurie was in San Diego.
Neither had any idea of the danger that was approaching.
Dan was awakened by his daughter Shannon who told him of the smoke on the hill. He said they drove to Kingsbury Grade and took pictures.
“At that time, they didn’t think it was serious,” Laurie recalls.
Dan phoned his brother Mike who also lives in the area and was at Lake Tahoe, and asked if he wanted him to shut the windows in his house.
“When they came back out of the house, the fire was already where they’d parked,” she said.
Dan said the fire started growing quickly and he wanted to help his brother evacuate.
But the fire was already moving towards Dan and Laurie’s ranch, which has been in Laurie’s family for generations.
“When it decided to move, it just went ‘boom!’ and was here,” Dan said.
“It was so black with the smoke. You couldn’t tell if it was day or night,” he said.
When it was apparent the fire was moving toward the ranch, Dan called Laurie and asked what she wanted him to take from the house.
Laurie asked for photographs, genealogy reports and other irreplaceable family heirlooms. No clothes, she said. They’re replaceable.
“When you’re not here, you’re more logical,” Laurie said. “I wouldn’t have been as calm, cool and collected.”
Laurie began the drive from San Diego, arriving in the middle of the night.
As the fire came closer, embers dropped onto the tin roofs of the buildings. Laurie believes the tin roofs were one of the reasons that all was not lost to the blaze.
“I think the only thing that saved us (the ranch) was Will Kolbe, Alton Anker and George Frager. They brought a CAT up here and cleared the area,” Laurie said, “and the tin roofs helped.”
A lot of good friends showed up at the house to help the Hickeys pack up their belongings, Laurie said.
“I think the neat thing is that friends just showed up,” she said.
Both were impressed and pleased with the help the community displayed.
“It takes a disaster to bring people together,” Dan said. “That’s a sad thing.”
Dan said some people who wanted to help couldn’t get up to the area because they weren’t allowed through by the sheriff’s deputies.
“I still have hard feelings about that,” he said.
Some of their friends tried to charter a helicopter to bring them to the house so they could help out. Others were running around the mountain side chasing the sheep away from the fire.
“It brings out the true good friends,” Dan said, “and it brings out new friends.”
Two weeks before the fire, a tour came through the house to see the antiques Laurie and her family had collected over the years.
“When some of those people heard about the fire, they came because they had seen the antiques and wanted to save them,” Laurie said.
“People we didn’t even know just showed up.”
“Everybody started converging,” Dan said.
Two weeks later, people were still returning items that had been saved.
“Just a bunch of honest and nice people,” Dan said of the helpers.
Once the belongings were taken care of, Dan stayed at the ranch to keep a vigil.
“I wouldn’t leave,” he said. “The firemen couldn’t get me out. I was telling people that if the house started burning, I would grab a six-pack of beer, go into the field and watch it burn.”
The Hickeys disagree with the punishments given to the boys who started the fire.
“Justice should have been swifter,” Laurie said.
“I thought it was ridiculous,” Dan said. “They’ve done something stupid, and their parents aren’t responsible. It’s no deterrent whatsoever for anyone else not to do it.”
“There is not any amount of money that can replace this,” Laurie said of the land.
Both feel the boys should be using their community service hours to help repair the area they destroyed.
“I would love them to come by and help out around here,” Dan said.
“I always thought we were extremely lucky to live here. It was very sad and upsetting, depressing almost. I’d look out the window and feel sick to my stomach,” Laurie said of the once beautiful lush land that is now black and bare.
“Being born and raised here, you take a lot of things for granted,” she continued, “things that won’t be back in our lifetime. At least we got to enjoy it.”
Since the fire, Dan has installed several fire systems around the property.
Laurie said she has become more organized, storing things such as photographs and genealogy reports in big plastic containers, ready to grab and leave at a moment’s notice.
The floods this winter caused a lot of water damage to the Hickey’s property. Dirt was on the fields. Some of the fences were washed out, and their cattle got mixed up with the neighbor’s.
As for the revegetation effort, Dan said the federal government has a law that requires the area to be replanted 60 days after the fire. Since the fire was in June, the reseeding would have to be completed by August, a season when there is no moisture in the ground.
Around 30-40 percent survived, with most of the seeds blowing away and settling in one place.
However, they said the effort put forth was tremendous.
“Everybody was so cooperative,” Laurie said.
“I think the groups that came out and cleaned, that was great,” Dan said.
“Gail Durham of Soil Conservation worked hard with the reseeding,” he added.
With the fire behind them, the Hickeys have survived.
“We’re here. No one was hurt,” Dan said.