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September 13, 2015
The Butte Fire

The Butte Fire, September 11, 2015. (Source: Michelle Gonzalez, mymotherlode.com)
NOTE: Between social media and the Web, we have tried to attribute all photos accurately.

On Wednesday evening, September 9, Gail received a phone call from our friend and former building inspector, Dennis. There was a fire outside of Mokelumne Hill, and it was advancing toward our mountain home. The so-named “Butte Fire” had started at approximately 2:30 pm on the north bank of the Mokelumne River off of Butte Road. Our house was across the river and about seven miles east of this location.

We are in the fourth year of an historic California drought. As the news reported, experts have long feared a fire in this region. The steep banks of the Mokelumne River would act as a chimney, sending the fire straight up the river that separates Amador and Calaveras Counties. By nightfall, the fire was estimated at 1,000 acres and spreading east. Authorities implemented a road closure on Highway 26, the road to our property.

Dennis invited us stay at his house 15 miles south of Moke Hill outside of San Andreas. We declined his offer, deciding that we would have the same access to information in the Bay Area, but without the smoke.

Gail tried calling our neighbor Scott, but his phone message said he was out of town until Thursday. Needless to say, we spent a sleepless night following the news.

The Butte Fire began here, on the banks of the Mokelumne River. (Source: unknown)

By Wednesday afternoon, smoke already filled the sky southeast of Butte Mountain outside of Jackson. (Source: Shannon Prieto, yubanet.com)

The extent of the Butte Fire by Wednesday evening. Russell added an icon showing the location of our mountain home (Source: yubanet.com)

By Thursday morning, September 10, the fire had spread to 4,000 acres and was 30 percent contained. At work, Russell followed Twitter and local news sites. At home, Gail tuned into the police and fire scanners. We found a map online that showed the spread of the fire. Our house was in the middle of the fire zone.

We resigned ourselves to the loss of our home and more than 10 years of work building it. Honestly, we counted our blessings. We had finally gotten insurance earlier this year after a decade of trying. We had nothing that was irreplaceable at the house. Unlike most of our neighbors, we had another home be at. And all of us were safe.

A map showing fire hot spots. Russell added an icon showing our house. (Source: arcgis.com)

By Thursday evening, the fire had grown to 14,700 acres and was now only 10 percent contained. Eight structures had officially been lost so far. Then, an absolutely amazing thing happened. Gail saw a picture of our mountain home on Facebook.

Our other neighbor is Kelley. It turns out that Kelley used to work for the parents of our son Joss’ housemate, Charlie. Charlie’s wife Avi saw the photo on Facebook and shared it with Gail. Kelley had gone up to our house because our mountain top provides a panoramic view of the entire area. The air tankers had doused our house with a borate flame retardant. Between the retardant, our metal roof and our recent stucco finish, the house was still standing.

Gail was finally able to get through to our neighbor Scott that evening. He had returned home, and confirmed that our house was still standing. However, the hillside to the south of our house was gone. Our shed, only a few hundred feet from the house, was also gone. Fire crews were up at the house with chainsaws, setting up a fire break. The news reported that fire crews were making structure preservation a higher priority than containment.

This Facebook post made Gail jump out of her chair, screaming. Our neighbor Kelley had posted, “Lees property house still hear (sic)”. (Source: Facebook)

Additional photos from Kelley's Facebook showed several spot fires on the property and an air tanker overhead (taken from underneath our balcony). If you look closely at the photo of our house on Facebook above, you will see that the left side is covered in purple flame retardant. (Source: Facebook)

KCRA News in Sacramento showed Scott’s brother Daryl, who had installed our water lines. Daryl was able to save his grandmother’s 1920 rocking chair before evacuating his home. (Source: David Bienick, KCRA, on Facebook)

By Friday morning, September 11, the fire had grown to 31,974 acres and was 10 percent contained. Gail was able to talk to Scott Bur, the realtor who had sold us our property. Scott was safe, but his real estate office in Mountain Ranch was probably gone. Fortunately his house was still intact. Gail also talked to Dennis again. The fire had spread south, and San Andreas was now under mandatory evacuation. It was a good thing we had not tried going up there.

By Friday evening, the fire had grown to 64,728 acres and was only 5 percent contained. It was the largest fire and highest priority in the state of California. 6,400 structures were threatened. More than 2,400 personnel were fighting the fire.

Highway 26 looking west toward Mokelumne Hill (Source: Joe Klarer, Calaveras Enterprise)

Fire crews battle the Butte Fire (Source: Andrew Seng, Sacramento Bee)

By Saturday, September 12, the fire had grown to 64,728 acres and was 10 percent contained. We found a better series of maps that showed something absolutely amazing. The fire, which had spread throughout Calaveras County, had literally made a bubble around our house. In fact, the fire containment line ran right through our property.

Even here in the Bay Area, more than 150 miles away, the sky was overcast with fallout from the fire. When we went outside, we could smell the smoke. We couldn’t imagine what it must be like for people closer to the fire zone.

The fire literally made a bubble around our house. Caption added by Russell (Source: Wildland Fire Map, www.PropertyLineMaps.com)

The Sacramento Bee published a series of photos taken “near the town of Glencoe.” Gail believes these crews are actually are on our property. (Source: Andrew Seng, Sacramento Bee)

By Sunday, September 13, the fire had grown to 65,215 acres and was 20 percent contained. Damage assessment teams were finally permitted to enter burned areas. The count so far was 86 homes and 51 outbuildings destroyed. The fire had moved much farther south and east beyond our property. We were hopefully optimistic that the worst of it had passed us. Our property was burned, but our house was still standing. There were even reports that it was sprinkling in San Andreas.

We were able to talk to Dennis again. He had been under mandatory evacuation, but had refused to leave his home. In fact, after the fire crews reviewed his property and preparations, they ended up using his property as a staging area for several fire engines and tractors. Dennis housed several fire fighters overnight. His wife cooked for them, and Dennis used his own tractor to help.

Our neighbor Scott had a similar story. Fire crews were using his home as a staging area, and Scott was aiding them with his own tractor and other heavy equipment. In fact, Scott was permitted to tour the area. He was able to see whose homes were still standing and call the owners. We were one of those calls. The satellite maps show that our property has not experienced a thermal hot spot in over 48 hours.

Two satellite maps showing thermal hot spots. Captions added by Russell (Source: Enplan Wildfire Viewer, wv.enplan.com)

We absolutely realize how fortunate, blessed and lucky we are. As of this writing, more than 2,300 people have been displaced. More than 135 single-family homes have been destroyed. Scott tells us that many homes west of our property on Highway 26 have been lost. Our hearts and sympathies go out to everyone who has lost anything.

Our thanks and praise also go to the more than 4,500 fire personnel who are still risking their lives to fight this fire. The Butte Fire has barely grown today, and containment is now at 25 percent. We have heard many, many stories about how kind, helpful and sympathetic these crews have been to the inhabitants threatened by this devastating fire.

The Butte Fire has already been overtaken in the headlines by a new Valley Fire, north of San Francisco. All told, more than 100,000 acres in California are currently on fire.

We hope to be able to drive up to our property sometime within the next week. We will post another update at that time.

Thank you, everyone, for your prayers, messages and words of sympathy!

Thank you to the thousands of fire crew who worked so hard to contain the Butte Fire! (Source: Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)


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