In the zone

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Roger and Spencer Cates and their dog, Kona, on their Yankee Hill ranch.

Spencer Cates steered the four-wheeler through a herd of cattle. Many of the animals—34 in total—trotted alongside the vehicle, hungry and hoping to be fed. Cates would get to that—but right now, his goal was to show this reporter just how close the Camp Fire had gotten to the buildings on his family’s ranch.

He didn’t have to go far from the main house before coming upon traces of fire—scorched grass and blackened tree trunks. In his area of Yankee Hill, the Camp Fire stayed low to the ground, in many places not even reaching tree canopies before moving on. All the trees there were new, he explained, having taken root after the Humboldt Fire in 2008.

For Cates and his father, Roger, fire is a fact of life, one that comes with living on a large ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The family settled here in 1936 and Roger still remembers, as a boy, watching the fields be set alight once a year or so to create pasture and eliminate fire danger.

“You know it’s going to happen,” Roger said. “That’s how a lot of the old-timers [avoided wildfires]—you know, it was based on Native American ways.”

The Cateses chose to stay put when the Camp Fire roared through, defending their property. They corralled the cattle—if they hadn’t, Spencer said, they likely would have gotten spooked and started running, increasing their chances of injury or even death.

“The last fire took every fence,” Roger recalled of the Humboldt blaze. He wasn’t at home that time to fight it off; this time was different. “That one took seven buildings; this one took none.”

Yankee Hill was spared the onslaught of the Camp Fire when it broke out on Nov. 8. By the next day, however, it had crept down the canyon and began to threaten that community. With a minimal amount of time for preparation, the Cateses said first responders flooded the area with bulldozers to cut fire lines and burn brush around properties. While remaining in place during an evacuation order is never recommended—for safety reasons—Roger maintains his knowledge of the terrain allowed him to direct firefighters and other personnel to nearby properties better than their paper maps could.

Nearby, Dan and Ronna Worcester got their horses to safety and then returned to their home, which they said was saved by Cal Fire. Dan protected their property for hours afterward, with his 40-foot fire hose and above-ground pool.

What peeved the Worcesters was the inability to leave their home to go to the store or get on with life after the fire was long out. The evacuation order was still in place as of press time, though Yankee Hill residents were offered a 24-hour reprieve, during which they had in-and-out privileges, this past Sunday.

“We’ve been to [Doug] LaMalfa, to [Jim] Nielsen, and nobody gives a shit—it’s up to Cal Fire and the sheriff,” Ronna said. “We are being played here. We have nice houses—we’re not in the brush. And they refuse to lift the evacuation order and let us have access to buy groceries. People don’t belong in the evacuation centers when they have homes.”

Unlike the Cateses and Worcesters in Yankee Hill, people in other communities received no warning of fire. Daniel Hill, just 14 years old, was leaving his house in Concow for school when he looked outside and saw smoke coming from the direction of Pulga, just one ridge over. Within 15 minutes, he said, the plume had grown and he could see fire on the mountain. After ensuring the rest of the family evacuated, he and his father, Brandon Hill, headed to his grandparents’ neighborhood off of Concow Road. Armed with hoses and a tractor, they fought the flames. Hill’s parents, Pete and Peggy Moak (the Butte County tax collector), had battled blazes before and were prepared to do so again.

“After it all settled, we walked up the road and heard someone screaming for help,” Daniel recalled last week from his grandparents’ house, where he’d stayed despite the evacuation order. He and a few others loaded into a golf cart and headed down to the reservoir, where people who’d been fleeing the fire were stuck on a small island. They grabbed a canoe and paddled out to rescue the survivors, one of them a 90-year-old man suffering from hypothermia (he survived).

Stewart Nugent, like the Hills, had little opportunity to flee his house when the Camp Fire struck. His wife left their home in her car 10 minutes ahead of him, as he gathered a few final items and tried to wrangle one of their cats. When he got outside, the fire had already reached his neighborhood in central Paradise. Rather than try to drive through the flames, he pulled out the sprinklers and the hoses and started defending his home.

“After about 45 minutes to an hour, I was just pecking away at the edges, raking away leaves under my neighbor’s deck, and it was real smoky,” Nugent said, pointing to the house just next to his on Williams Drive. “I thought, ‘I’m outta here.’ I grabbed the cat and when I got to the truck, the wind had shifted again, so I went back at it. Most of it was gone by that point, so I was putting out embers on the roof, putting out hot spots.”

After the threat was gone, he saw no reason to leave. With plenty of food, propane to run his generator and wood for his stove, he chose to stick it out, though a few weeks in, he was relying on the kindness of tow-truck drivers and others working on the Ridge for food and water for the neighborhood animals. And random drop-ins from those workers and this reporter, for conversation.

Though he saved his and his neighbor’s homes, he was adamant: “Just don’t paint me as a hero.”