This is her experience through the Butte Fire in 2015, and how Lapcats was able to
help hundreds of evacuees and animals during this time.
Wednesday, September 9 – Day 1
I called my dad and talked it out, he was already thinking of things to locate and pack if needed. We moved to Mountain Ranch in 1990, and have had to pack in preparation for evacuations three times prior, but have never had to leave – Though I no longer live in this house, it’s been the only family home I’ve known. I told my dad that worst case, we are insured to the hilt and it will be okay. He didn’t seem to appreciate that comment – wasn’t as comforting as I thought.
I kept an eye on the news, and Facebook groups I belong to, and stayed on top of the fire all night.
Thursday, September 10 – Day 2
At this point, there were posts on Facebook every where similar to the following:
“I am being evacuated, I have 6 horses, a 500lb pig and two dogs. I only have one horse trailer. Please help 209-xxx-xxxx.”
“I had to let my donkeys and horse go, I could not get them out in time. If you see them, please call me. Photo below.”
You then began to see:
“I have a five horse trailer and am driving in from Clements now, call me if you need help 209-xxx-xxxx.”
“I have 10 acres, all fenced for livestock. We have an extra guest quarters and room for a couple dogs. Please call us if you need space, in Valley Springs!”
“Attention! There are 50 horse trailers currently staging at Raleys, if anyone needs evacuation, CALL US NOW! Don’t wait until it’s too late 209-xxx-xxxx.”
At this point, I was commenting, posting and following everything I could. Seeing all the needs pouring out from my hometown community, watching as friend after friend, after friend posted they had to leave their homes. Donations were already starting to come in through gofundme.
My mom got back home this day. She immediately began packing with my dad. My dad stated he was still in denial, until he saw a singed leaf fall from the sky – next would be hot embers. They left before the mandatory evacuations were put out in their area. My mom could hear propane tanks exploding over the ridge as they left. They took two of the vehicles, the possessions they could, and our Dalmatian, Gabriella. They stayed the night in my mom’s insurance agency. I felt helpless, and was in an entirely different state. (Another neighbor would later tell me that as her husband told her to calmly stock the fridge in their RV – as they were leaving, he saw the flames cresting the hill.)
Friday, September 11 – Day 3
I got no sleep. 1am - I was watching the fire map – it finally hit the home my family has owned for 25 years. I lost it.
This was the day we were to return home anyway. We packed as quickly as we could and headed from Tahoe back home to Sacramento around 10am. On the way, I called the office I used to work out of and asked if we could pick up an SUV, and the purpose behind it. We were given the okay, and nabbed this ride as well.
By the time we got home to Sacramento, we had raised roughly $1,600 on gofundme in less than 24 hours. We met with my cat sitter (the amazing Leslie of Lapcats!) and got our house keys back, then jammed over to Costco. I had been watching online the evacuation centers etc, and paid attention to the items that were needed and started making a shopping list. I had a lifelong friend who had multiple family members (including her twin sister evacuated)… she helped us spend $1,200 at Costco and fill three carts. My mom had also called ahead, and the manager donated $100 towards our purchase.
We then continued to New Hogan Reservoir to the campsites out there. We located a drop off donation center. At the time, it consisted of two women and two picnic tables with items. We gave them a good portion of our supplies. The women had been out there all day, and needed to go home to their children. I promised I’d put the word out on Facebook that they needed relief. While we were there, I met two people from my home town of Mountain Ranch. I spoke with both of them, and offered them hugs and strength. We then had to continue on.
Our last stop for Friday was the Full Gospel Church in Burson, CA. We emptied the rest of our vehicle at this location. There were many familiar faces working and volunteering. On our drive home, through Mokelumne Hill – we finally saw flames coming over a mountain. At this point, we had only seen mountains of smoke.
We got home, my good friend from San Jose brought us drinks and much needed alcohol. He would meet with us the next day to help.
Saturday, September 12 - Day 4
Also at this point, there are reports of armed looters going around and robbing homes while they are vacant, stealing copper and pumping wells for Marijuana grows. Some arrests are made, remaining residents chase off others. People trying to run down police road blocks, impersonating emergency personnel to try and get by. The National Guard among others is spread throughout the county…
We got up Saturday morning and had a very busy day. We first went to Petsmart on Laguna in Elk Grove to meet with Leslie from Lapcats Rescue. I had reached out to Leslie and Barbara to see if we maybe had some items that could be donated. We figured we would get a couple boxes of supplies for animals… I should have known better, we were not expecting and were not prepared for what we got. They filled our entire SUV to the roof. Food, collars, leashes, cages, bowls, toys, flea treatment, you name it. Thousands of dollars worth of merchandise loaded up and ready to go. In addition to that, they had reached out to Sid, the manager at Petsmart, and stated a food donation in the store for the Butte Fire. We were loaded!
We bought walkie talkies too, so our two cars could communicate. The cell phone service is very questionable. And if the roads opened, we were going to try and go up the hill to my parent’s house.
Our first stop was at an evacuation center that opened up on Lake Comanche. We came by and sorted out our items as evenly as we could, as we knew we needed to share the animal items over quite a few sites. We then went to Cowgirl Up Ranch who had been housing some families and animals, we were able to give them some animal food they needed. We again went to the church in Burson, and gave a portion there, we then moved back to Hogan and left more items there. Each place we stopped at was slowly growing in donations and size. We then dropped off the custom food order to a woman’s house, it was bustling and busy with people cooking, prepping, wrapping and delivering food all over. Turns out her mom is a client of my mom’s.
We then were going to drop off a specific request of cat litter and pans for a friend I’ve known since preschool. Her parents and grandparents had to evacuate to her home. Both her and her boy friend are also firefighters. The town of San Andreas that she lives in, got an evacuation order right as we were going. We weren’t able to make it to her (we were able to drop them off to the fire house another day for her).
We also needed to go through San Andreas to get to Frog Town in Angels Camp (County Fairgrounds). This was a huge evacuation center and fire staging area, they also had a large amount of animals. We took the long way, from Valley Springs down to Copperopolis and back up to Angels Camp. We unloaded the remainder of our items at the fairgrounds. There were animals everywhere, volunteers doing all they could, and vets running around caring for all these pets and livestock.
Our friend from San Jose took photographs of us as we went through the whole day of driving and deliveries. (you can see my mom’s office in the first)
Sunday September 13 – Day 5
On Sunday, we got up and went to Target. Our goal was more camping type supplies, as well as baby items. Lots of places were asking for diapers, wipes, bottles etc. It was just Greg and I this day. We dropped off our items between Hogan, Comanche, and Burson. These would become regular stops. We began recognizing the volunteers, and matching faces with names on Facebook. I was starting to know the coordinators of each of these sites, and able to communicate their needs and try to fulfill them.
Greg and I tried to get up to my childhood house again this day. All the roads were still blocked. We began taking really, really rural back roads (one lane dirt) to try and get around and get into town. The CHP were smarter than us, and had every sneaky path that others had used on lock down. Turns out it’s for the best, as the location we would have come out at had the fire race through it during that time. (We made sure not to alert either sets of our parents before hand – we didn’t have time for the worries.)
At this point, stories of lost homes, and people fighting all they could for their own homes was pouring over social media. The pleas for help, and those willing to help continued to explode.
At this point, I also had numerous long time friends and fire fighters with our address, willing to try and get us anything they could. Finally, a man I had talked to before – he lost his home and lives near us… and is a client of my mom’s. He called me, he was not familiar with our home or area. But he was able to describe it to me, and clearly describe our neighbors house (which is the only house on the left). We are the only house on the right – he had seen nothing except one burned jeep on the right. We confirmed this was one of ours. However, it was very dark, he didn’t have much light, it’s possible he missed our giant house in the dark….
Monday September 14 – Day 6
On the way out there, I received a call from the Valley Springs News. They wanted to meet us at the drop off that morning and get photographs etc.
Greg and I then worked from my mom’s office in Valley Springs the rest of the day. It was heart breaking to have clients calling, and coming in… my mom helping place claims for our neighbor and friends’ houses and belongings. Our poor Dalmatian, Gabriella, who is also the ‘complaint department’ was so confused and distraught. We had long time friends and clients coming in all day to visit in this stressful time.
The officers at the main road refused us. We went down to the CHP station. I told the woman why we were there – she looked at me like I was crazy with my work tshirt, bandana around my neck (for smoke) and disheveled look. She went and got the supervisor – just my luck! Someone who had known me since I was about 10… Officer! Supervisor! Here’s the story…. She gave us her phone number and told us to tell the gentlemen to read the instructions they were given that morning, and to call her if they still refused to let us through. They ended up needing to call while we waited. They conversed, then finally walked up to my window. They moved the cones and said – we will let you through but you have to do something first. I said, “Sure anything!” They said… you have to sing the jingle. Without missing a beat I belted out “insert jingle here!! I’ll do that all day if you let us through!” They asked us to please update them if we can when we get down as so many people have questions, and we got through….
No one had really been up this way yet. We only saw PG&E personnel, firefighters, and the few who stayed up on the mountain. So many rumors were spreading about what was gone and what wasn’t. I did the best I could to photograph every single home from the road closure to our house that you could see from the street. When I came back down the mountain, I posted them on social media so people could identify if their homes were still there. It helped so many people, and brought some hope, it was amazing. I did not post any homes that were no longer there…. Only ones still standing.
We reached the edge of my parent’s HOA and I started filming. We had to go around numerous down power lines and trees. I wanted to take an inventory for our neighbors, so they would know their home’s status, the knowledge I was getting – I couldn’t be selfish and not help others. As we got closer to my parent’s home, there were less and less houses still standing. I started to lose it and couldn’t continue recording. I kept a list and checked off all the houses that were gone.
We got to our street… normally because of the trees and acreage, you don't see the house until you’re close. I could see right away from the corner that it was not there. I felt so horrible for Greg, not much he could do as I ran out to the center of the front of where our house once stood and just lost it. I could hear my sobs and screams echoing off the canyon, very surreal – and I couldn’t make it stop. (if anyone watches Real Housewives of Orange County – this year when Vicki found out her mom passed, it was like that – so embarrassing. I’m sure I startled any woodland creatures that may have been remaining in the entire canyon)
I had told Greg before we got there, that no matter the outcome, I want a photograph of my initial response. I know it seems weird, but as a photographer at heart – and being so involved in this experience, I felt it would speak wonders to what is going on in my community.
On our way out, we ran into a ranger and told him about the propane. He had us show him the property and turned it off for us. Thank goodness Greg was driving, otherwise I’d likely still be sitting on that mountain in a company SUV staring into space. We looked around again for anything we could possibly recover or take. Greg noticed some stepping stones. These are stones my parents had made with cement each time a new friend or family visited our house after we got it in the early 90s. There was a stone that said, “The Clarks, Bob, Terry and Katie ‘90” (the year we moved in) we grabbed it, my dad still doesn’t know.
We got into town and stopped at the store, it only had two employees in it, both of which had lost their homes. A couple loads of firefighters from Lancaster came in, we thanked them for all their help. We used the restroom, asked if the phones were up – they weren’t. I walked over to my best friend’s grandfather’s house, just for some comfort in knowing something is still standing. We tried the pay phone there too, no dial tone.
We headed the half hour back down the hill. I got phone service and called my mom. I asked her what answer she wanted…. She said, “The truth,” at which point I started crying, and she knew. I apologized over and over, and felt horrible that I could do nothing. I sent her photographs of the property. She ended up showing my dad the one with me in it. He kept saying, “No that’s not right, I know that angle, where’s the house?” Mom: “There is no house.” Dad: “No, where’s the house?” Mom: “It’s in front of her, that’s the house, that was the house.”
On our way home, it was around 8-9pm at this point. We stopped at one of my friend’s houses in Mokelumne Hill. Thank goodness she was home and her evacuation had been lifted, because I needed a familiar face.
Tuesday September 15 – Day 7
Wednesday September 16 – Day 8
We also had two volunteers from Lapcats Rescue with an SUV that was going to do the Petsmart load for us.
Off we went with four car loads of stuff! We arrived at the Church in Burson and started unloading. One of the women who went with us that day had a young daughter who wanted to make sure her American Girl Doll went with a child. We found a woman who was actually my preschool teacher back in the day, and told her the situation. She told us that there was a girl, 9, who had just had her birthday at the evacuation center. They had thrown her a surprise party. Her family wasn’t there while we were, as they were checking to see if their home made it. The two women exchanged numbers, and my prior preschool teacher promised she would get the doll to the girl, and share a photo of the doll’s new home. She also hugged me, and said she was so sorry for my parent’s loss, at which point I lost it for a minute. We continued on and found some other people from my home town, talked to them, saw if they needed help and wished them luck.
The fire still continues, and there’s a lot left to do.
Although I know this is very lengthy, it’s really only a fraction of the encounters that we’ve had. By no means are we a rare item in this category of help…. Hundreds if not thousands of neighbors and other ‘regular’ people have been doing everything they can to help everyone in need. Coworkers, other corporations, the list goes on and on. In addition to all the utility companies, numerous fire agencies, police departments and CHP, etc, etc. I could never recognize or list all of them for you, but for every single person who has contributed, myself and my community will never forget, and I thank you for that!
Additional Lapcats and Petsmart support and photos
from after I originally wrote this story:
One week, we were given and delivered huge boxes of Petsmart holiday stuffed animals to take to the fire victims and pets. We ended up giving huge boxes of them along with other supplies to the Calaveras County Animal Shelter.
We stopped by the next week to check on them to see if they needed anything. What did we find? A stuffed animal in every kennel. They said one volunteer had so much fun handing them out. All the dogs at this location were identified and they knew who the owners were. However, the owners were either evacuated or already lost their homes and had no way to care for their dogs at the time.
Everybody had an animal (except one guy... who kept tearing his up!) Everybody loved them.
We later went on to help run and organize a
donation site in my home town for 2-3 weeks...
We'd also go back to the property and search a little...
We've continued volunteering and haven't stopped through the recovery.
We planned a flower planting project in April!
Then in August, we did a Water Donation Drive!
(Sorry Downtown Plaza Dental Offices... I miss you on this flier!)
Then at the 1 Year Anniversary - September 2016
In your honor, in memory of the Butte Fire, and all we've been through.
Click here to read the Calaveras Enterprise Article Regarding the Flags