Creek Fire survivors outside Fresno CA rebuild homes, lives

People warned Tara Schram the Creek Fire’s one-year anniversary would mark a painful milestone.

Schram didn’t want to believe them. Surely, she told herself, it’s just another day on her family’s road to recovery. But as the first weekend of September approached, she started feeling sad all over again.

“One year is a long time and I guess I was expecting things to be further along at this point,” said Schram, who lost her home on Cressman Road in the Fresno County mountain community of Pine Ridge. Locals simply call it “the Ridge.” Schram’s parents, who lived across the street, lost their home as well. As did her sister, who lived down the street.

“It kind of feels like, ‘Wow, what has happened?’ We’ve had 12 months to get somewhere, and it feels like we’re treading water.”

On the afternoon of Sept. 4, 2020, the Friday before Labor Day weekend, Big Creek residents began noticing a column of smoke wafting from the expansive canyon below their village. By the time fire managers declared the Creek Fire fully contained on Christmas Eve, it had burned nearly 380,000 acres of the San Joaquin River drainage and destroyed roughly 500 homes. (The official tally of 856 structures includes out buildings.)

Besides Big Creek itself, where the fire consumed half the privately owned homes while sparing those owned by Southern California Edison, nowhere was the property loss more severe than Pine Ridge, and Cressman Road in particular. Out of the 88 residences with addresses on Cressman Road and two adjoining streets, only 22 remain standing.

Every Creek Fire survivor has their own story. How far along the path to recovery they are after 12 months depends on personal finances, home values, insurance policies and whether they lost a primary residence or cabin. Each of these factors impacts the decision to rebuild, relocate or walk away.

There are many hoops to jump through, a gauntlet that can take months or even years. Forms must be submitted and rights of entry granted so the county can clean up the charred remains of their homes. Soil samples must be taken to check for hazardous materials — and what mountain homeowner doesn’t have a propane tank or gas can on their property? Downed trees must be cleared, water and septic systems repaired, insurance and FEMA agents dealt with.

Separate from all that, but no less important, is the emotional trauma they’ve experienced.

“That’s the hardest part to fix, really,” said Ari Arroyo, a Pine Ridge resident who chairs the Creek Fire Recovery Collaborative.

“You can buy or rebuild, but you’ve still got to get to the mindset where you can enjoy your new house. That’s why we’ve put a lot of effort into the emotional side. It’s not as simple as nails and screws.”

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Pine Ridge School, mostly undamaged in last year’s Creek Fire, appears at upper left surrounded by mostly charred terrain in the Pine Ridge area in this drone image on Friday, April 9, 2021. CRAIG KOHLRUSS [email protected]

Schram is learning that firsthand. The business manager of Pine Ridge School, which firefighters helped save, Tara and her husband Kirk have three sons ages 13, 9 and 3. Since being evacuated on the fire’s first weekend, the family has lived in seven hotels and rental homes. On top of that, her father passed away a few months ago.

Even though Schram’s family settled into a long-term rental and plans to rebuild on their Cressman Road property, she worries about the long-term impact on her boys. Her middle son has developed anxiety and won’t sleep in a bed, preferring the couch. And her youngest keeps wanting to get into the car, as if he expects to move again.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Schram said. “Out of everything we’ve been through, seeing how it’s affected them is the hardest part.”

Shaver Lake fishing guide loses home, again

Unlike the vast majority of Creek Fire survivors, Dick and Diane Nichols have been through this before.

In November 2016, the Nichols lost their home on Peterson Road (and nearly their lives) in a blaze whose cause was never determined. Following a two-year rebuild, they lived in the new one for two more until the Creek Fire claimed that one as well.

“Must be bad karma or something,” quipped Dick Nichols, a fixture in the Shaver Lake fishing community who is retiring as a licensed guide.

Because the Nichols lived in a fire-prone area, traditional insurance companies wanted nothing to do with them. Like many mountain homeowners, they settled for a policy under the California Fair Plan, a syndicated pool of licensed insurers. That meant their home was covered (at $100,000 less than its appraised value, according to Dick) but not its contents.

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Dick and Diane Nichols sit in the backyard of their home in Prather on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, a year after their former residence was destroyed in the Creek Fire. It was the second time in five years their home was destroyed by fire. CRAIG KOHLRUSS [email protected]

After losing everything for the second time in five years, the Nichols applied for FEMA disaster assistance and made multiple visits to the federal agency’s southeast Fresno office — more than an hour from the fire zone. However, after submitting all the required documents, their FEMA agent (assigned from Puerto Rico) told them they were ineligible for a grant unless they first applied, and were rejected for, a Small Business Administration loan.

“It was a total joke,” Dick Nichols said of the runaround. “We went there over and over and over.”

The Nichols stayed one month at a Clovis hotel, where they racked up a $5,000 bill and spent another $3,000 eating at restaurants. Another $8,000 went toward the down payment on a 31-foot trailer, which they parked on their daughter’s property in Alder Springs and stayed through the winter with their two large dogs.

By the time the insurance money started trickling in — and not without a dispute that required the couple to hire an attorney — they had drained their savings and maxxed their credit cards.

“Things were looking bleak,” Dick Nichols said.

Creek Fire survivors face ‘crazy seller’s market’

The Nichols are both 75 years old and didn’t want to wait another two years to rebuild. (Construction costs are also sky high due to demand and elevated lumber prices.) They also wanted to remain close to family and friends. That left them at the mercy of what real estate broker and mountain resident Beth Brown called “a crazy seller’s market.”

Despite the Creek Fire and the COVID-19 pandemic, property values at Shaver Lake have surged over the past year — by as much as 30% to 40%, according to Brown. Any reasonably priced property quickly gets multiple offers. A cabin in Shaver Lake Point sold for $1.25 million in one day.

In a few areas, including the Dogwood Mountain development about 3 miles above Cressman’s General Store and newly visible from Highway 168, there’s even high demand for burned-out lots. Four five-acre parcels there sold for about $150,000 apiece despite their blackened condition, Brown said.

“Which is a little bit baffling for us because those were the same prices we saw last summer before the Creek Fire,” Brown added. “The same lots were selling for the same price, except they had trees on them.”

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Blue skies begin to emerge after days of heavy smoke from the Creek Fire as seen behind the burned remains of Cressman’s General Store and the charred hillside near the four-lane at Pine Ridge on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. CRAIG KOHLRUSS [email protected]

For most who lost their primary residences to the Creek Fire, purchasing in Shaver Lake is not an option. While home prices are generally less expensive in the Pine Ridge area, values there also increased due to high demand and so many homes getting destroyed.

“It’s extremely difficult for people to find a replacement property that’s affordable,” Brown said. “Most people that lost their homes had insurance, but keep in mind they were insured based on the value at time of the Creek Fire. And now here we are and values have gone up.”

As a result, many Creek Fire survivors moved to the foothills (the Nichols found a place near Prather after being outbid on three other properties), to Fresno and Clovis or out of the area.

“A lot of people are going down the hill, like Dick and Diane, and others are packing up and leaving completely,” Brown said. “Some are kind of just in limbo trying to figure out what to do.”

Costs to rebuild at Camp Sierra don’t add up

Like anything involved with real estate, finances are a major factor in the decision.

In 2016, Clovis resident Bruce Lippmann purchased his “little happy place” at Camp Sierra, which sits on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service. Besides a main cabin built in 1938, the property contained a bunkhouse, bathroom and barn.

“I lost everything,” the retired schoolteacher said. Unlike the three other Camp Sierra cabins burned in the fire’s initial hours, Lippmann’s place went up 10 days later after the blaze swept back down the mountainside. His neighbor’s properties were untouched.

Lippmann thought about rebuilding — the Forest Service told him he could construct a single cabin on the property no larger than 1,400 square feet — but the finances didn’t compute. Contractors quoted him $300 to $350 per square foot, plus what it would cost to pay the architect and for county permits, and he was only insured for $264,000.

“Even at the lowest rate, I’m still looking at $300,000 for a 1,000-square foot cabin or $420,000 for one that’s 1,400 square feet,” he said. “That doesn’t work for me. It’s not like I have a lot of cash to throw around.”

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Several destroyed homes and a vehicle are seen in Big Creek on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020 after the Creek Fire burned through the area over the weekend. Although several homes were destroyed, the general store, the school and several other buildings appear undamaged. CRAIG KOHLRUSS [email protected]

Lippmann informed the Forest Service of his decision and got released from the long-term lease on Camp Sierra cabin site 38. He then took some of the insurance money and bought an RV.

“I’m really going to miss that place,” Lippmann said. “Talk about peace and tranquility, that was it.”

For Creek Fire survivors who lost everything, help was and continues to be available in many forms.

Among the primary drivers is the Creek Fire Recovery Collaborative, a long-term recovery group made up of community volunteers that coordinates assistance to those in need from 52 different nonprofits, government entities and private organizations.

‘It’s not charity. It’s not a handout’

What kind of help? Everything from gift cards and warm clothing to donated equipment rentals and labor so that residents can get their water systems back in working order to a weekly support group led by certified trauma counselors.

“We talk about whatever topics people feel the need to share and have somebody listening that understands what they’ve gone through,” said Yolanda Akers, director of Trauma Intervention Programs.

The Creek Fire Recovery Collaborative is currently helping 85 families and only recently received a list from FEMA of others who’ve requested assistance. (The umbrella organization put together a One Year Stronger fundraising event Saturday, Sept. 4 at the Shaver Lake Community Center.)

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From this small blaze in rugged Big Creek Canyon, as photographed from the fire station helipad in Big Creek, California, on the evening of Sept. 4, 2020, the Creek Fire quickly grew into one of the largest wildfires in state history. Special to The Bee

But because mountain residents tend to be independent and self-reliant, some require convincing they need the help — no matter how dire their circumstances.

“Sometimes it’s hard to accept help if you’re used to doing it yourself,” said Arroyo, the collaborative chair.

An artisan and volunteer firefighter whose own home on Cressman Road was spared, Arroyo experienced this firsthand when a man whose house burned down refused a gift card to a big box store.

Why? Because he doesn’t accept charity.

“I told him, ‘It’s not charity. It’s not a handout,’ ” Arroyo recalled. “You have experienced something horrible, none of which was your fault, and these people want to help. Plus, you can’t say you don’t deserve it.”

The man eventually relented and took the gift card.

“He had tears in his eyes, and I thanked him,” Arroyo said. “The trauma caused by this fire affects people. It really does.”

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.