Fleeing the Butte Fire
On Sept 9, 2015 at 2:26 PM a tree fell across a power line near the town of Jackson California, causing a widespread local power outage and sparking a fire that was to become known as The Butte Wildfire. It rapidly grew to 14,500 acres.
Twelve hours later in the middle of the night my house was awakened by a reverse 911 call from the Sheriff's office, warning us to be prepared to evacuate.
In the pitch black darkness, by flashlight my elderly mother and I gathered her four cats and put them in carriers; we grabbed what necessary personal items we could think of....(What do you grab in the middle of the night? What really is essential?)
Carriers, pet food, bottled water, two suitcases, two briefcases of vital papers were piled in the front hall.
I dashed to the 2 dozen boxes of Jody Scott manuscripts, papers and correspondence I'd recently shipped down from Seattle to prepare for the archive that'd be their permanent home. What could I rescue? What was there room for after four cats, one dog and two humans with their necessary luggage? I grabbed one ream of collected-together stories- not half of the total but at least something. The novels were easier, one copy of each, but none of the preserved preliminary drafts, none of the hand-written first drafts.... and nothing of correspondence, professional or personal...
The irony if after years in storage, Jody's papers were lost just as I was preparing them to be preserved forever in an archive, was not lost on me.
And then we waited. And we waited. In a few hours my mother went back to bed. At some point I let the cats back out of the carriers; they'd been in them for hours.
When daylight came I drove to the nearby state park and hiked out to the point, site of a disused fire lookout. I'd never seen more than 1 or 2 people there, today there were a dozen and a half gathered as we stood looking south to where the fire was. If you stretched our right arm out as a 45 degree angle, it'd point to where the fire had started. If you did the same with your left arm, that's where it'd spread to overnight. But the steep canyon ravine of the Mokelumne river seemed to be stopping the fire some 2 miles distant. We could see lots of smoke, but no flames. It seemed to all of us that we were going to be OK.
I drove into Jackson to the Starbucks. Time for coffee after the tense sleepless night. Time to relax. I thought.
Then law enforcement personnel from Sacramento came in, they were on their way upcountry to help with mandatory evacuations. "Upcountry" was where I'd just come from.
We were evacuated on Sept 10, 2015 at apx. 10:30 AM. Our destination, the Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort where the Red Cross had set up shop.
We could only recapture two of the cats; the other two were on their own. I left out lots of food and water and hoped we'd see them again.
At the county fairgrounds, ACART (Amador County Animal Response Team) had established headquarters to take in and care for pets and livestock for as long as people needed. For free. That's where our pets stayed. Later Laughton Ranch in Jackson took in livestock and horses as well. Plus similar operations in Calaveras County. Local businesses donated livestock feed, pet food and supplies. Hundreds of volunteers worked thousands of man hours caring for the livestock and pets of people they would probably never meet.
At the casino, where I was lucky enough to nab a room, we watched black smoke filled the sky in the shape of a gigantic mushroom cloud. The winds shifted and the air filled with smoke; I sincerely hoped the authorities who'd gathered us all in this location knew what they were doing because it looked far too close and menacing.
Cots were set up in every available convention space, a cafeteria and gathering room was filled with rows and rows of tables. The casino fed us abundantly and well. The Sheriff's Office and CalFire provided twice daily updates. As more and more people poured in, eventually the entire hotel, the entire RV park and several overflow parking lots were also given over to house and feed fire evacuees.
I cannot praise highly enough the generosity of Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort that took such good care of us all. If you are ever in this part of California, please do patronize them.
The evacuees, forced from their homes, sleeping on cots with no privacy, no idea if they'd have a home to go back to, or when, behaved with stellar aplomb and civility. Everyone rallied in a way that showed the nobility and intrinsic goodness of people.
After 5 days we were able to return home. We were lucky. The fire never did reach my town, instead it turned south and devastated, in some cases destroyed the small communities of Calaveras County.
The fire burned for another 2 weeks, destroying nearly 900 homes and outbuildings, and burning over 70,000 acres. Two people were killed. And this wasn't even the worst fire of the fall of 2015. Soon the Valley fire would prove even more destructive.
On Facebook someone posted video taken with their phone as they evacuated; it is well worth clicking over there to watch it. As much as anything can it takes you into what the experience feels like. I sincerely wish none of you ever experience it for real.
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