Mt. Mesa was in chaos. I stood on the street corner by the local market and watched for my in-laws, for David, for anyone to find me. There were many cars, horses and people who stood in shock like me with saucer eyes. Emergency vehicles with sirens sped up McCray toward the fire and disappeared into the wall of smoke. There was nothing I could do but cover my mouth with my sleeve and wait. I couldn’t call anyone. My cell phone didn’t work. Someone said the tower on top of Cook Peak mountain had incinerated.
Do you see the people standing next to the blue pick-up truck in the photo below? I don’t know who they are, but I latched on to them. We engaged in nervous conversation about our evacuation and rescuing our animals. In the back of their truck was their young goat. Their two small dogs were in the cab.
They said the fire started on the other side of Cook Peak mountain near Erskine Creek. That made sense. All the noise I heard earlier when the fire was just smoke on the crest was from the air bombers and helicopters fighting on the other side of the mountain to keep the fire from spreading west into Lake Isabella.
And then David drove by and sped up McCray. There was too much commotion for him to notice me flailing my arms. Later he said he made it to the first barricade. When stopped, he told the officer his wife was still up there, and he had to get through. At the second barricade, a firefighter covered in pink flame retardant warned that if he passed, there would be no one to rescue him. David made it 100 yards farther when the smoke turned black. He couldn’t see the road or the familiar landmarks. Suddenly, a house burst into flames. A propane tank exploded. Both sides of the road were on fire, and the wind blew the flames like a blowtorch. It was a war zone. Driving towards him from out of the smoke was a man in a truck who yelled to turn back, there was nothing left. The power lines above were bouncing and melting. David knew there was nothing he could do, except go back to Mt. Mesa and pray to God that I was there. And I was, along with a bazillion other people.
David and I drove away from Mt. Mesa as an army of emergency vehicles poured into Squirrel Valley. We were fortunate to have relatives in the valley and were evacuating to my in-law’s house in Wofford Heights on the other side of the lake. It felt weird leaving Cook Peak behind, not knowing if we’d have a home to come back to. I worried about the fate of my critters, knowing there was nothing I could do to save them. My potbelly pigs were trapped in their pen with no way out. The chickens were locked in their coop. The last time I saw Mr. Leonard and Ruthie, my cats, they were in the yard. How could any of them survive such a hell? I kept looking back toward home, imagining Cook Peak in the midst of all that smoke, fighting for its life.
Later that evening we went to the Red Cross shelter at the Senior Center in Lake Isabella for the latest news about the fire. We learned the situation was terrible. Two people had died in their driveway from smoke inhalation on McCray just a few houses from where I was picked up. The fire was out of control, and dozens of homes had already burned to the ground; there would be more, many more.
I talked with a friend who was sitting with her children. They had lost everything and had only minutes to escape. We saw one of Liz’s friends, Alex. He said his dad’s house was gone, and he couldn’t find his dad. (That was the location where Amber was loaded into the horse trailer, only the house was untouched at the time.) The Red Cross shelter was getting crowded as more evacuees arrived, many with their pets. Scanning the crowd, I looked for my neighbor and Hernia Dog.
After the meeting, we drove back to Wofford Heights. Looking across the lake toward Squirrel Valley, the mountains glowed red. The fire had already burned through Cook Peak mountain, Squirrel Valley, Mt. Mesa, Southlake and Weldon and was heading east with 0% containment.
Photojournalist Michael Cuffe, captured the horror of that night.
The next morning we went to Kernville, so I could call my clients and let them know what had happened. Kernville Elementary School was a Red Cross shelter location, and it was packed with evacuees, volunteers, fire officials and insurance representatives. We found a quiet spot under a mulberry tree and waited for the news briefing at 10:00 a.m., hoping to learn when we could return to our home and if it were still there. Not knowing was torture and so was ruminating over the fate of my animals.
We borrowed binoculars and drove around to the backside of the lake, but it was too far to see if Cook Peak was alive. We saw a lot of burned areas and no traffic on the highway which meant the area was still sealed off to the public. It was weird how in the morning it looked like the fire was almost out which gave us a false sense that the situation was almost over. As the day heated up into the upper nineties, so did the fire.
250+ homes and 48,000 acres were destroyed over the next few days, and the entire Kern River Valley was enveloped in smoke. The Erskine Creek Fire would later become Kern County’s most destructive fire.
St. Judes Catholic Church also became one of the Red Cross evacuation centers. My mother-in-law is the church secretary. Donations poured in faster than anyone could process. It felt good knowing people, random people from all over Kern County and beyond, had rallied together to send help our way. When I left Cook Peak with Amber, I only had the clothes on my back and my cell phone. As a fire survivor, I was allowed to pick out a new toothbrush from a box filled with hundreds of toothbrushes and anything else I needed. 4H groups brought in truckloads of hay and feed to the valley for displaced livestock. Animal shelters in other cities brought food and supplies.
Animal Control was in charge of all the displaced animals. Over the next few days, they went into the burned areas and rounded up lost dogs and cats. They fed livestock and dropped off pet food to the people who chose not to evacuate. Many of the evacuees at the Red Cross shelters brought their pets with them. Animal Control gave them cages and carriers and pet food to help them. These two dogs were at St. Judes, waiting to be claimed by their owners. We checked all the cages daily for Hernia Dog.
Here I am at our local Vons, pointing out where Cook Peak was in the midst of the red fire zone. When news reached us through friends that Cook Peak survived the fire, and the pigs and chickens were alive, we felt some relief, but the anxiety continued. Police had all the burned areas sealed off to the public, and the public was getting angry. David found a way in. He had a friend with a press pass, and the two of them were granted access to the disaster area.
Thankfully Cook Peak survived the fire with relatively minor damage. Many of our neighbors lost everything. David retrieved my computer equipment and found Hernia Dog! Yes, Hernia Dog. My neighbor across the street had stayed behind and helped save Cook Peak from burning with a garden hose.
By Monday morning, Hernia Dog and I were in the Deacon’s office at St. Judes, and Ann Cook Design was back in business. It was difficult to concentrate on work when we were on such an emotional rollercoaster.
The worst area hit by the fire was Southlake. 200+ mobile homes were incinerated, and hundreds of the people were displaced. That’s when I experienced a strange feeling. Over the next few days, I met people who lost everything and listened to their stories. I began to feel guilty because my home survived. Why? Why was Cook Peak spared?
A week after the fire we were allowed to return to Cook Peak. The electricity was still out, but the mandatory boiling of water had lifted. The fire burned all the main electrical poles from Lake Isabella to Southlake, and South California Edison worked around-the-clock to rebuild and restore power. Here are the workmen putting in new poles with a giant crane! People honked and waved at them as if they were celebrities.
Here’s one of the street signs a block from our house. Those are Juniper trees behind the sign. When we moved to Cook Peak, the house was surrounded on three sides by Juniper trees like a privacy fence. We cut them all down the first year, and it’s a good thing we did! They’re a fire hazard, and we would have lost everything.
The fire was officially over. The physical damage was minor, but the stress of it all made us feel like we were going to stroke out. We could fix things like the cement pond. It was a vast, toxic mess and the filter/plumbing was ruined, but we could bring it back to life. The horse fences had burned down, and the pasture and our lot next door were blackened. We fared better than we expected and felt guilty for being lucky.
One thing I will always remember about the fire was the smell when I opened the front door for the first time. It took my breath away. It smelled like a stale ashtray or a campfire minus the hotdogs. Ash was on everything and in everything. Because the windows were open when I evacuated, the was an overwhelming mess to clean up.
We toured the neighborhood over the next few days like everyone else. The devastation was a sobering experience. When the girls lived at home, we’d go on walks around the neighborhood, especially in the evenings with Hernia Dog. We knew every house, and now many of them were gone.
In this picture, I’m standing in the back pasture looking toward Cook Peak. In the background, you can see the fence around the cement pond, and to the right, the barnyard area. I often found myself fixated on the burned areas in an unhealthy way. I’d go out the back and step through the burned out pool fence to get to the burned pasture and look at all the burned areas. It’s going to take a while for the land to heal. We lost some of the oak trees in the side yard, but mostly the ground was scorched.
To combat our gloominess, we planted flowers in the front yard. If I looked out my front window, I could not tell there had been a devastating fire around me. But if I looked out my back window, all I saw was burned, and it wasn’t healthy for me. With the fire behind us, our goal was clean and fix everything and to get back to normal as soon as possible.
When you’re in a fire, and your fridge stays closed for many days in the hot summer without power, it turns into a stinking box. We cleaned ours thoroughly, but the stench was overwhelming. We Googled and found a home remedy of charcoal briquettes on cookie sheets and wads of The Bakersfield Californian to help absorb the odor. That didn’t work out very well. After living out of an ice chest for a couple of days, insurance agreed we had a refrigerator problem and brought us a new fridge, and it’s a beauty! The stink box went to the landfill.
David and I drove up the road to Cook Peak mountain a few days after the fire and stopped at the flat spot. The view was spectacular as usual yet this time sobering as we looked down upon Squirrel Valley. The fire’s path of destruction was obvious and we could see how it went around Cook Peak. It was strange to see the trees on the flat spot black like matchsticks, as the ash swirled around us.
It’s been three weeks since the fire. Our house smells normal, or maybe we’re just used to it. The Red Cross is gone, and hand-outs have stopped. The fire trucks no longer cruise neighborhood every day to check for hotspots. The strangest time is the night. It’s darker than usual without neighbors behind us and the wildlife is gone.
We are coming up on the two year anniversary of the Erskine Creek Fire in June. It’s also the beginning of the 2018 fire season. I can’t help but feel anxious, but I hear that’s normal. I’m okay with that.