By: Dave Fountinelle | firstname.lastname@example.org
“This was our family cabin,” Quinn Padilla notes in a video tour of the property where he once lived. He recorded it on Sept. 7th, shortly before the Sheriff’s Office issued evacuation orders for the Huntington Lake area. In the clip, he walks through the main cabin, documenting the various mementos and furnishings acquired over generations of ownership.
“There’s smoke in the air, it’s all around us right now,” he narrates, tilting the camera up to reveal a hazy layer of orange-tinted smoke. It was so dense it obscured the tops of the redwoods surrounding the property. The second video he shares begins with him standing in the same spot as the previous one. Only this time, there are just piles of smoldering ash where the circle of cabins used to be. A few half-melted metal appliances and charred frames stick out, and a giant scorched fallen tree lies right through the middle of it all. The tall, green pines that previously circled the lot are now blackened skeletons. The air is foggy with grey smoke, and ash falls through the air like snowflakes.
“So, for uh, 111 years there was a cabin standing here. This is all that’s left. Just a bunch of twisted fucking metal. There’s nothing left. It’s all gone,” Quinn sighs as he walks through the wreckage. “God help us all.”
Padilla’s family cabin predated the Lakeshore resort. It was built in 1909 before the U.S. designated it as a national park. It’s been his family’s cabin since 1969. The fires reduced a lifetime of memories to ash overnight. The fires came so quickly there wasn’t enough time to save anything.
“The fire jumped 2 miles in a day,” Padilla explains. “We had a fire tornado rip through here. I have never seen a fire tornado in my life. It sounded like a jet engine, and it just wiped out everything in its path.”
When the order to evacuate came down, many of the residents in the area hastily packed up what they could and fled to safety. A handful of the Lakeshore Resort staff, including Padilla and owner Steve Sherry, decided to defy the evacuation order and stay behind to protect as much of their community as they could.
“That’s our home and our land, we’re not going anywhere,” Padilla states.
With that, they made fire lines – clear cut paths that separate sections of unburned forest growth to contain a wildfire – cutting down trees, and clearing an “escape route” to the docks. On Monday, Sept. 14th, the fire chief informed them that the fire had jumped 2 miles in less than 12 hours and was now just one hour away from their location. The Lakeshore crew prepared with a boat full of supplies, ready to head out to the tiny sandbar “island” that sits in the middle of the lake and wait it out if necessary.
“We had the pontoon boat and a jet ski that we used to do recon around the area and get a feel for how things were going and where the fire was moving,” Padilla explained.
Padilla described 200ft flames that towered above the tree line and how intense the heat felt, even on the other side of the lake from the fires. Huntington Lake is famous for its sailing weather, but those high winds had made containing the fire a nightmare for the Cal Fire crews.
On Tuesday, Cal Fire crews with bulldozers helped dig fire lines around Lakeshore Resort and nearby condos. The Lakeshore crew also had three small loaders that they were using to help clear away brush and debris for fire lines.
“Cal Fire helped us tremendously,” Owner Steve Sherry adds. “Those guys worked hard and got a lot done in a very short amount of time. I can’t say enough about what a great job they did for all of us here.”
Despite all of their hard work, however, there were problems that the out-of-town crews faced working in an unfamiliar area.
“They just didn’t know where some things were,” Sherry explained, adding, “At one point, they had no water. So, we had to show them where the hook up was and get it working for them.”
Opinions were mixed regarding the efforts of the Huntington Lake VFD. Padilla was critical of their efforts.
“I feel like they just cut and run on Saturday [the 12th],” he said. “They left their equipment in a parking lot, and we didn’t see them again.”
Sherry reserved criticism. Instead, he credited them for doing the best they could, given the circumstances.
“I know these guys,” he said, “They’re good guys. They work hard. I’ve worked with them a lot over the years. We’ve done fundraisers with them. I think they did as much as they could.”
Unfortunately, the Lakeshore crew’s refusal to comply with the evacuation order would eventually catch up to them. By mid-week, the sheriffs arrived to order the men to clear out. When Sherry refused to leave, a sheriff handcuffed him for allegedly impersonating a fire official. This claim was little more than a pretense to remove him from the property. The sheriff drove him into town and dropped him off.
“It wasn’t about our safety,” Padilla snorted, “We were always safe and in constant communication with everyone. This was just about us not obeying the evacuation order.” To which he added, “They took away our ability to fight for our homes.”
Adding to that frustration was the Lakeshore crew’s feeling that their community had been largely ignored in favor of higher priority assets in the area. Both Padilla and Sherry described the relief they felt when extra fire crews arrived in the area and began aggressively working on digging breaks and working on containment. However, it was quickly replaced with exasperated disappointment. Those same fire crews abruptly left after securing just a few high-value areas — namely the SoCal Edison Big Creek station and some multi-million-dollar residential properties.
“They never brought in any air support,” Sherry lamented. “Never dropped any water or retardant around here at all.”
Padilla shared his boss’s frustration, saying, “It feels like we just weren’t important enough to fight for … that’s what’s so irritating about this whole situation. We were willing and able to stay there and fight for our homes and our community. We never ran, we never relinquished ground until the authorities removed us.”
A week later, the news was positive for Lakeshore Resort.
“We’re still standing so far,” Sherry sighs. “I’m trying to get approval to get back up there and check on the properties, retrieve some equipment and personal belongings, and just get a visual on what the situation is like there.”
Speculation from local authorities was that residents could begin returning by mid-October. Not soon enough, according to Sherry. “We aren’t going to wait that long; we can’t.”
There’s never a shortage of finger-pointing during a crisis, and the Creek Fire has been no exception. Democrats in Sacramento, including Governor Newsom, have blamed the severity of the 2020 fire season largely on the consequences of global warming, while Republicans blame poor forest management and logging restrictions. Having grown up in his family’s ill-fated cabin, Padilla had seen first-hand how 30+ years of environmental policymaking created a perfect storm for super fires such as this one.
“The Drought had a huge impact on these trees, as did the bark beetles. They chewed these trees up and basically covered the ground with sawdust,” Padilla explains. “These trees are dry and brittle, like matchsticks.”
According to both Padilla and Sherry, forest management is the single most significant factor responsible for these fires’ severity.
“Everything changed drastically about 10-15 years ago,” Padilla noted. “All the effort was focused on Hwy 168 and that side, while everything on the backside has been completely ignored.”
Padilla described fire access trails blocked by fallen trees and debris, making it impossible for fire crews to reach some of the worst hot spots. “They just didn’t do enough to maintain the trails and work in a proactive way to prevent this from happening in the first place.”
Sherry echoes Padilla’s sentiment, adding, “All of us who live and work here, we’ve known for years what the problems were and what to do about them. But nobody in Sacramento wants to listen or do anything until it’s too late. All of this could have been prevented, or at the very least, it could have been a lot less severe. Maybe now they will start taking [forest management] seriously, while we still have some forest left.”
To date, the Creek Fire is about 40% contained. Families in the Huntington Lake area should start getting the ok to return home in the next few weeks. Some who have lost their cabins have already been allowed passes to assess the damage. As residents begin the long, painful process of rebuilding, some are doing their part to collect donations on behalf of the community to help those who need it. Sherry’s son-in-law admins the Huntington Lake Facebook page, which locals and neighboring communities have used to coordinate donations and drop-offs. Their most critical needs are the most obvious ones – food, clothing, gas, or other gift cards for residents, hot meals and cold drinks for fire crews and volunteers.
“You can’t imagine what this is like until you’ve experienced it first-hand,” Sherry says. “We’ve got a long, difficult road ahead. But we’re a different type of people up here. We don’t back down; we don’t give up. We look out for each other, and we fight for what’s ours. We’ll get through this like we always do, together.”
For more information on ways you can help the families affected by the Creek Fire, you can visit the Huntington Lake Facebook Page, https://www.facebook.com/Huntlk or contact the Red Cross at https://www.redcross.org/donate/donation.html/