Up where I live, there is an almost constant threat of forest fires. We are all keenly aware, and most families have tried to create defensible fire zones around their homes. We’ve mapped out escape routes and have go-bags ready. It’s a grim reality of living in the midst of Mother Nature’s forestlands. Making it even more real, we have a neighbor whose family survived the recent Camp Fire and still bears the trauma. And, on the verge of another fire season, I, too, have an unforgettable memory to share with you.
In 1992, a hungry fire swept through the El Dorado Forest near Ice House Reservoir and consumed every living thing and manmade artifact in its path. Homes, cabins, vehicles, businesses. Like all natural disasters, it didn’t discriminate in its appetite for destruction.
I was sent up the hill from a daily newspaper in Sacramento, driving my low, sleek Camaro – very sexy but utterly inappropriate for the terrain and the assignment. The Cleveland Fire had been burning for two days and showed no signs of slowing down. The area (on Route 50 to Lake Tahoe) was (and is) a popular area for summer homes, a playground for winter sports, and home to families who love the mountain lifestyle. But back then, people were being evacuated with greater urgency every passing hour, and thousands of acres of forestland had been turned over to firefighting crews. Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, teams of Hot Shots, and local volunteer departments were battling the flames in 12 to 16-hour days, sleeping in tents at a nearby fairground.
I parked my car in a staging area near Ice House Road and was referred to a Cal Fire Captain in charge of public information. He handed me a Nomex jacket and a hard hat. Joined by Bryan Patrick, the top photographer from my newspaper, we climbed into the cab of a heavy-duty truck and went to the fire line along a narrow, winding road. Within five minutes, we were surrounded by the active fire. Flames engulfed smaller fir trees that served as matches, lighting the taller pines on fire like massive torches. On the south side of the road and the far side of the American River, cabins were aflame, and others were already no more than rock foundations sending inky smoke swirls into the air. The wooden planks on the one-lane bridge leading over the river glowed with embers. The fear was that the fire would jump the highway and burn further up the mountainside. Fire crews around us were focused on that immediate effort.
Bryan and I were standing on the edge of a driveway leading to a bridge that was still intact. Our Cal Fire ‘minder’ was close by. We walked over the bridge, Brian took several photos, and I asked the questions. The Cal Fire guy was in mid-answer when his radio blasted through an urgent message, and he hustled us back into the truck. He told us we were close to a major accident that had just happened – an air tanker meant for dropping retardant on the fire had crashed. We would be first on the scene.
We raced across the highway and pulled onto an old logging road. About a half-mile in, we saw black smoke billowing above the treetops, and we stopped. Bryan grabbed his cameras and jumped out. The Cal Fire escort and I ran after him. Around a turn and off to the right of a beaten-down path, we saw the massive, hot orange glow. Brian started to shoot. The Firefighter ran toward the source, hoping, I assumed, to find someone alive. But, as though shot from a flame thrower, a ball of fire barrelled down the path toward us. We all ran for our lives.
I can’t remember the race along the logging road to the safety of the highway – it was a blur of adrenaline that ended in deep sorrow. Charles Frost Sheridan, 54, a pilot from Porterville, and Leonard Douglas Martin, 34, the co-pilot, from Exeter, lost their lives. Later, we learned that, before the crash, the pilots had been dealing with an “onboard malfunction.”
The Cleveland fire consumed 24,580 acres – small compared to the more recent fires we’ve been experiencing across California. But I guess that acreage is no way to measure the impact of any fire. The loss is personal and public and leaves scars that will take decades to heal. Some never will.
I wrote a series of stories for the newspaper with Brian’s impactful photos emphasizing the devastating truth. Months later, I received a journalism award for my coverage. I’ve lost the little plaque they presented to me, but that day on the mountain is forever burned into my memory.
For more information HERE'S a well-done Story from the Mt. Democrat
See Bryan Patrick's current work as a freelance photographer HERE