A year after the brook fire, survivors count their blessings and find new reasons for hope – GV Wire

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Saturday marks the first anniversary of the start of the Creek Fire, which destroyed more than 800 buildings and injured 26 people as it swept through the Sierra National Forest and surrounding neighborhoods.

In its wake are barren mountains and hills, marked with matchstick-shaped trees still standing and partly burnt trunks in heaps waiting for logging trucks. The Blackened Earth is a scar that spans 593 square miles, more than five times the size of the city of Fresno.

And within those 593 square miles lived thousands of people whose lives were turned upside down by the fire that roared through the canyon across Big Creek.

Dieter Wulfhorst says he and his wife Susan Doering consider themselves luckier than many of their neighbors, who lost everything and either had no insurance or were underinsured. Homeowner’s insurance will allow the couple to rebuild their Mile High neighborhood home nestled between Auberry and Pine Ridge on the north side of Highway 168, which was completely destroyed by the fire. They fled with their musical instruments – Wulfhorst plays the cello and Doering the violin – along with passports and other valuable documents, photos and their cat Charlie.

They have regularly returned to their farm site since the fire, sifting through the ashes to find “miracles,” Wulfhorst said, such as souvenir pottery mugs that escaped unharmed and other items the fire has merged artistically. Work with their insurance company has been slow, especially now that so many new fires such as the Dixie and Caldor fires in northern California continue to ravage the state, he said.

One of the “miracles” that survived the fire. Dieter Wulfhorst says that is now their motto. (Photo provided by Dieter Wulfhorst)

Remains of a concert program with Dieter Wulfhorst and Susan Doering. (Photo provided by Dieter Wulfhorst)

But Wulfhorst said they plan to persevere and build a new house there so that they can once again enjoy the view of already green mountain landscapes. For now, they are in a rented house in Clovis after more than 11 months of living on a friend’s farm in Reedley.

When they return to live at Mile High, however, some things will be different. Wulfhorst will be wearing a new tuxedo when he performs – his old one, 80, and inherited from a relative – was consumed by the fire. And he said they planned to stay closer to home than in the past, when they traveled extensively as touring musicians, sometimes spending only three nights a month at home.

“Even now, we go back quite regularly and it’s just a spiritual draw,” he said. “The house was really quite amazing. The first time we walked into the house before we even bought it, we felt this incredible spiritual strength that the house gave us. And the site is beautifully located with a beautiful view. And now it’s amazing how much regrowth, how fast.

“We are still in mourning. And probably always will. But we still feel the incredible spiritual appeal of the place.

Go forward

September 4, 2020 – “It was the day our world changed,” says Toby Wait.

The loss of their Big Creek home and most of their possessions gave Wait and his family the opportunity to hit the restart button – and see a new part of the world.

Wait, who was previously superintendent / principal of Big Creek Elementary School with about 50 students, now runs a K-12 International Baccalaureate school in Kuwait with 2,500 students. His wife is waiting for his visa to be able to join him and teach in the first year. Their two youngest children are also awaiting visas, while the older ones are at university and are now studying Arabic in addition to their other classes.

Wait said he had considered working overseas before the blaze. When he initially applied for the job in January 2020, the family’s biggest concern was “what are we going to do with all our stuff?”

It is not certain that he would have chosen to uproot himself from the mountain community where his children had grown up and had all their friends and memories.

“I don’t know if I could have walked away from it,” he said. “But losing your home made that decision a lot easier.”

Wait said he accepted the job overseas because he wanted to expose his family to different cultures and experiences. One of the things he’s learned since moving to Kuwait is that the teachers at the school don’t own homes or cars, so they’re not as grounded as Americans usually are. They have the freedom to travel more widely and don’t have to worry about raking pine needles or mowing the grass at home, he said.

And Wait is excited about the teachers his own children will have in the English language school – a history teacher whose knowledge of ancient Greece is bolstered by his Greek nationality, or the economics teacher from Kenya who can give. an overview of the economy of Africa.

But he hasn’t lost touch with his California friends, including principals in the fire-ravaged areas of northern California, who now face the same challenges as the Big Creek School last year. . Wait said he was preparing for a virtual meeting with school leaders to go over some of the lessons he learned, such as the importance of bringing children back with their classmates – although it wasn’t is that online – ASAP.

Wait said it was sad that the state had to tackle major fires again affecting thousands of people.

“My heart breaks for the people who have lost their homes. I know what they are going through.

Photo of Big Creek, Calif., On the morning of Sunday, September 6, 2020, after the Creek Fire.

The scene at Big Creek after the fire. (Facebook / Brian Bailey

Adapt to a new world

Almost a year ago, Margo Ortiz and her husband were at the Fresno County Fairgrounds where her three American paint horses had been evacuated. She was glad her horses were safe but worried about what she would find when they could finally go up the mountain.

She was one of the lucky ones – her Peterson Road home survived the Creek fire, which slipped within 5 feet of the back of the home.

“And you can see where the fire department fought it on that side,” she said. “And, you know, you can’t thank these people enough.”

One of Margo Ortiz’s horses enjoys the view from the front of his house in Peterson Road. (Photo provided by Margo Ortiz)

The other neighbors weren’t so lucky. Ortiz says only 12 of about 100 homes in Peterson have been spared.

So these days she is beset with mixed emotions. She is thankful that her house did not burn down, but at the same time, she is sad for her many neighbors who had no insurance or who were underinsured and struggling to rebuild.

And she’s also sad that the landscape that drew her to the mountains of Fresno County for her retirement has dramatically changed.

The trees in front of his house are still standing and look a lot like they were a year ago before the fire broke out. But from behind, where trees have burned or been felled, she can now see up to Cressman’s general store, which now operates from a shipping container, at the top of Four Lane on the road 168.

“It’s hard to go in and out every day, to see it and see what it’s done. It just breaks your heart. It really is, ”Ortiz said. “And you see the people who want to build, try to build, and the trees that are gone. It was such a beautiful place before. And now it’s just a whole different landscape.

She sees fewer deer – “there is no place for them to hide” – and too many snakes these days. His horses were so happy to come home that they ran into the pasture for half an hour. They are not so happy to go for walks in areas still thick with ash.

The chickens left behind survived the blaze and she even inherited some of her neighbor’s chickens and cats after her neighbor’s house burned down. But his duck was nowhere to be found.

“I’m just thinking he flew to Shaver Lake and that’s really happy,” she said.

Margo Ortiz at Shaver Lake. Behind her is a hill ravaged by fire. (Photo provided by Margo Ortiz)


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