This is a journal of sorts written by our Creative Director, Katie.
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
Greg and I were on vacation in Tahoe and meeting my mom in Reno that night. While we were out with my mom, I got an alert on my phone from the local news KCRA3 app, noting a fire near Mokelumne Hill. I sent my dad a quick email, “See smoke yet?”… it then spiraled into a nightmare.
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
By the second day, the fire had exploded over night. We couldn’t sit there and do nothing. That afternoon, I started a gofundme to help raise money to get supplies to evacuees – this was going to continue and not resolve quickly. We continued with our planned Thursday and spent the day in Virginia City, NV while I was glued to my phone.
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
We stopped in Jackson, CA on our way out and visited shortly with insurance agents manning a catastrophe van (who I have known for at least 15 years), and checked in with them before moving on.
We then traveled to Valley Springs Elementary. We were able to provide pajamas and toiletries to an entire group home of 20 teenage boys who had to be evacuated and had nothing. As they helped us unload the car, one boy stated it was “like Christmas” and they were overjoyed to just have some deodorant and new clothes to sleep in. Next door to them, was the Veteran’s Hall in Valley Springs. They were just setting up to be an evacuation center and were anticipating as many as 100 seniors to be evacuated from San Andreas shortly. They had barely any supplies. We left with them many items and food products that we had, and put the word on Facebook that they needed more.
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
At this point, my parents had rented an RV and retreated to Hughson, CA. My cell phone had also been blowing up with texts, calls, posts, and Facebook messages. Some from people I know, some from complete strangers. We became an information and help go to – and we were happy to be a hub for that! (honestly…. I think I’ve been contacted by at least over 100 different people looking for help – lots of new Facebook friends, and it still hasn’t stopped)
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 then went to Walmart (did some vehicle shuffling), and had another pick-up truck meet us there from a friend also raised in Calaveras (his cousin is our friend from San Jose with the much needed alcohol). We went and shopped for as many camping supplies as we could, tents, tarps, flashlights, bug spray, etc. We also purchased a custom request of grocery items for a woman in Valley Springs. She started running a huge cooking operation out of her home and was delivering hot meals to evacuation sites. While at Walmart, we had a third person (who I’ve never met, and was referred to by another friend)… she met us and unloaded her car full of supplies into ours so we could take them up.
We were loaded for the second day… and we were off!
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.
By the time we left, the evacuation order in San Andreas was lifted and we were able to drive through. We would not be able to get up the hill that day.
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)
Also this evening – my best friend’s uncle (also my dad’s best friend) hadn’t been heard from. He lived near us, and when he last spoke with my dad said he wasn’t coming down off the hill. His family and daughters were worried, my parents were worried. I tracked down a photograph of him from my best friend, got his vitals from my mom – and went to work posting! I posted a plea for help to locate him, we were confident he was safe, but just unsure of where he was. I noted he has a nifty handle bar mustache, a red jeep, and a Sheppard looking dog named “Pisser” and he may offer you a beer…. (these are my people!!). It got shared hundreds of times, and within hours I had someone whose boyfriend recognized the photograph. He had been back in the evacuated area on a quad (snuck in on forest roads), and remembered a man with a jeep and a dog that looked just like him. It was around 1:30pm that day. She stated if he went back, they would let him know we’re concerned. The next day… our friend found a phone and called his daughter and let her know he was okay. It turns out, the woman’s boyfriend DID go back, and asked if our friend had been in contact with family. Our friend said “no,” the guy told him he needed to call because we were worried!
Sunday September 13 – Day 5
We took a photograph of the growing site at Hogan to share with our friend who went the first day (when it was two ladies and two tables).
On this day, as we were leaving Hogan, there was a rough looking man in his late 30s with tattoos, no shirt, just shorts and shoes on. He and his three small children were looking at the clothing donation piles. I smiled and nodded at him, he nodded and kind of looked down and shook his head. I stopped and asked him where he was from, he said “Rail Road Flat” which is one town up from mine… I shook his hand and told him to hang in there. He and his kids were safe, there are plenty of clothing items to help them, they will be okay. He thanked me, and we left.
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
Monday… we had to come back to work from PTO. We were able to wiggle it with the help of our management to be able to go back out. We went to Petsmart on Laguna, and filled the entire SUV with donations from the shopping customers who had donated over the weekend. We dropped all the items at the Burson church, who at this point had turned into a massive collection and distribution center for all evacuation centers around it. They let me know they were in need of a new phone system with at least 4 phones to help keep organized. We stopped at Best Buy, and made sure we brought it.
We then decided we were going to try to get up the hill again to find out if my parents had a home. We tried the same path as before, and were stopped again. I started crying in the car. I got myself together and talked to the officer. We were outfitted in all work gear that day. I told the officer the situation, and he noted that the paperwork they received said my profession was one that should be allowed through at this time. This location is a hard closure though, and we needed to go back to the main road and try. He said the officers there aren’t local, so to go to his supervisor if they refuse us…. Back we go.
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.
Our entire town proper of Mountain Ranch was still there, saved by firefighters and a few hearty residents who built their own fire blocks and helped it go around the town as opposed to through it. (yes, this is our one grocery store – the brown barn in the back is owned by my best friend’s Grandfather, Clint Eastwood has walked through the doors of that dancehall for the film Honky Tonk Man!)
Beyond town proper, everyone else didn’t fair as well. As we started to climb toward my family’s home, things got worse and worse.
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.
I was finally able to calm down and began photographing what I could. The overwhelming smell of propane nearly had me vomiting. My parents lost roughly 5 acres of vegetation, 3,600 sq ft 3 story house, two car garage, 1 or 2 small outbuildings, 6 cars and a Rhino ATV type vehicle. Not to mention the mass amounts of contents on the property and 25 years worth of memories at the home. I was absolutely floored at how much stuff can simply cease to exist or take up even a fraction of the space or foot print that it once did. I tried to make out what things were, or where they were, and it was nearly impossible.
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
We had to work this day, I had two appointments scheduled and was able to do one. Unable to make any runs up the hill.
Wednesday September 16 – Day 8
I ran up to Chico for work at 9am. Greg has Wednesdays off. At this point, our local office had been collecting an amazing amount of donations to take up (in addition to the contributions made by employees through gofundme). While I was in Chico, Greg loaded up the vehicle at the office.
Our hair stylist/friend had also been collecting donations and had a couple friends (one from the bay) who were going to deliver with us that day. They had filled two whole vehicles with items picked up from friends!
We also had two volunteers from Lapcats Rescue with an SUV that was going to do the Petsmart load for us.
I also called in the help of my trusty friend who went with us day one.
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.
Here’s the status of the Burson Church as of Wednesday:
We have raised roughly $4,000 overall and plan to continue to run supplies and donations as long as they are needed. We still haven’t unpacked from Tahoe… and I think we permanently smell like smoke at this point…
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
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.