When Wildfires Rage, Friends Lose Homes

As the Caldor Fire rages on the Eldorado National Forest, the Sugar Pine Foundation headquarters in Meyers, CA has been evacuated – and our friend Dean Davis’s hair-raising account of how he lost his home in last year’s Slater Fire echoes in our minds and feels all too close for comfort.
 
Dean has been a friend and partner of the Sugar Pine Foundation for over ten years.  Before he retired, Dean was a forester with the US Forest Service in Happy Camp, CA and was involved in efforts to restore sugar pines on the Klamath National Forest. 

He and his wife Karen began homesteading outside Happy Camp in 1979.  At first, they lived in a simple log cabin.  Over the years, they built an elaborate wood home – a true labor of love and woodcraft – and raised their “free range children and animals” on their land.  Because their land had completely burned in 1955, they were aware of the possibility of a wildfire in the heavily wooded hills surrounding their property – and they had taken great care to protect their place from fire.  For decades, they worked with Calfire, the Karuk Tribe, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Mid Klamath Watershed Council to dramatically reduce fuels across their property by mowing, piling and burning, and underburning after removing most of the brushy fuels.  They even built a gravity-fed water line and sprinkler system to maintain a generous “green zone” around their home, barns, outbuildings and farmyard.

The Davis home as it looked when we visited in 2017.  Photo Credit: Maria Mircheva

A lightning strike ignited what became the Slater Fire outside Happy Camp on September 8, 2020.  Here is Dean Davis’ story.

The morning of September 8, 2020 started out warm and breezy, with winds blowing from the southeast.  I noticed this as I finished feeding and watering our animals and moving the sprinklers around our home. 

Around 8am, we got a call from Karen’s sister in Mount Shasta.  She had seen a Facebook post that a fire start had been reported in the hills above us.  She said it was estimated to be about a tenth of an acre.  Just to be safe, I decided to drive a few miles down the road to where I could get a better look.  When I got to a good vantage point, I could immediately see that the fire was closer to 10-15 acres, putting up a large column of smoke and heading directly our way.  I returned to our house as quickly as possible to warn Karen of the situation and prepare to defend our home.

By the time I got back, the fire was already imminent.  Karen began loading the car with our important files and papers, which we had previously assembled.  The sky was getting very dark, and we could already smell the smoke.  The wind was becoming very strong and erratic.

I strategically readied our sprinkler systems, my fire tools and our vehicles.  I filled two backpack pump sprayers, got some hoses together, fueled my chainsaw, and staged more fuel and tractor diesel nearby.  I got my hardhat, fireshirt, gloves and fire shelter on.

The fire was quickly approaching, as leaves and ash were appearing on the wind.  A Forest Service fire prevention tech showed up, looking terrified.  He told us to evacuate immediately, and that the main road was impassible so we would have to go up the creek to escape.  I told him I was staying to defend, and he left after just a few minutes.  The roar of the approaching fire was deafening and the sky was black with an eerie red glow.  I told Karen to go.  She was crying as she loaded up our pets and drove away, directly toward the firefront.  I desperately hoped she would get out in time and that I would see her again.

Karen barely made it out amidst active flames at the top of the driveway and eventually made it to safety by driving over the crest of the Siskiyous.

Even as she was leaving, large trees began breaking and falling in the hurricane-force wind that had developed.  The sound was incredible: branches and tree limbs were flying everywhere. 

As I was preparing my defenses back at the homestead, the water pressure suddenly dropped.  I realized that our gravity-fed water line had either burned or been crushed by falling trees.  Within minutes, a river of embers flowed across our land, screaming through the woods and sparking fires everywhere.  I watched as our generator shed next to our woodpile caught fire.  A giant ancient cherry tree split apart and was aflame in seconds.  Our grain and tool storage shed was igniting.  Then our chicken coop and two barns all caught fire simultaneously.  I grabbed a McCloud fire tool, put on a backpack pump, and started circling the house to watch for fire starts. 

On the second or third circle around, I saw a tiny fire start near the top of the tile roof by a dormer window.  As I ran around to the front of the house, I saw the vines by the propane tanks were on fire.  I tried to pull down as much as I could, stomping out the bases and spraying water on spots I couldn’t pull away.  Then I raced to the top of the house, which already smelled like burning rubber.  All the fire alarms were going off at once, but the howl of the conflagration almost drowned their sound out.  I leaned out of the dormer window as far as I could and tried to spray water on the roof area that was on fire.  It was not effective, and I couldn’t hang out any farther.  The fire was intensifying.

I knew at that moment that I couldn’t save our home.

I ran downstairs as fast as I could and grabbed our computer on the way.  By the time I got down to the ground floor, the two kitchen windows were broken and the propane tank outside was venting like a flame thrower.  I thought it would explode at any moment.  I ran out and tried to start the tractor I had positioned nearby, but the seat, the dash and the clutch pedal had melted.  The whole area was hot as hell and all of the outbuildings were engulfed, so I ran for the cars parked in the meadow.  I dove into our reliable old Honda, which had a great air conditioner.  I ran the air conditioner and watched as the home Karen and I had designed and built and raised our three girls in burned to the ground.  Tiles shed from the roof like dragon scales, tumbling and crashing to the ground.  Flames howled from the windows.  Our home’s demise was astonishingly fast.  In less than an hour, our entire home was flat on the ground.

I stayed in the car for about three hours, knowing that I couldn’t escape the property with all the downed trees.  The whole time, I was terrified that a killer crown fire would sweep through the property.  As a trained firefighter, I was prepared to get out of the car, get out in the open, dig a face-hole in the ground, and get inside my fire shelter as a last-ditch effort to survive – but I was afraid that there would be no oxygen to breathe from the super-heated air.  Thank God a crown fire never came!  Throughout our watered area, only single-tree torching occurred.  All of the fuels reduction work we had done paid off. 

Around 4pm, I heard a chainsaw in the distance.  I got out of the car and started yelling.  I heard two of my girls screaming and crying my name and they ran towards me through the smoke.  We hugged and all broke down in tears. They were sure I had been burned to death.  I felt terrible for losing the place and scaring them so badly.  They had come in with their husbands, cutting numerous trees to get in.  They also had to cut through downed powerlines with bolt cutters for passage.  We left within minutes, since the fire was still very active.  Parts of the road were so blocked that we had to go through private pastures to get out, and newly fallen trees had to be removed as we fled.  Though everyone amongst us had previous fire experience, we were all shocked at the scene on the way out.  Trees were falling everywhere, all of the trees along the roads were black sticks, and no understory vegetation was left anywhere. Virtually every home along our mountain road was burned to the ground and gone. The only green trees to be seen were on our property.  It was a miracle that I survived. 

The Davis home and tractor post-fire.  Photo Credit: Dean Davis

Parting Thoughts
Dean told us, “I am so thankful for the work done by the Karuk Tribe, the US Forest Service, the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, the Nature Conservancy, Calfire, contractors and private citizens all pulling together to reduce the severity and impact of these terrifying fires we are experiencing across our western landscapes and much of the world.  Vision, foresight, shared wisdom, science and hard work saved my life.”

We are so very glad that Dean survived the inferno that took his home and so much more, and  – chilling as it is – we are grateful to Dean for sharing his story with all of us.  While we do not especially recommend staying home to defend your home in the event of a wildfire, we do expressly promote taking proactive measures to make your land and home more defensible, as Dean and Karen did.  Being prepared by having an evacuation plan and “go bags” ready in the event of wildfire is also increasingly important.  Sadly, we know that stories like Dean’s are only becoming more common.  Please: be firewise, be prepared and stay safe this fire season!

Top photo:

The Slater Fire on the Klamath National Forest in September 2020. 
Photo Credit: Jasen Vela, Siskiyou Daily News

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