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Two summers later, grappling with what was lost the day the Creek Fire destroyed half the homes in this Sierra Nevada town.

View of Big Creek from above the two roads where all the houses were destroyed. The town's center, on the left, survived.
Alice Daniel
View of Big Creek from above the two roads where all the houses were destroyed. The town's center, on the left, survived.

Stephanie Wait and her husband Toby raised four children in Big Creek, a tiny town in the Sierra Nevada built around the Southern California Edison hydroelectric plant. Stephanie was a teacher at the 55-student elementary school. Toby was principal and superintendent. The family spent their winters on skis and snowboards, their summers on nearby lakes. Their kids rode their bikes at night and played flashlight tag. People looked out for one another.

Big Creek really was idyllic, Stephanie says. But that changed two years ago over Labor Day weekend.

“What we felt and what we had as a Big Creek family kind of disappeared that day when the fire came through,” she says.

The fire was swift and huge taking out 41 homes, most of them on two roads right above the town center. While most of the town evacuated on the early morning of September 5th, a number of people stayed behind.

“We knew about 10 to 12 men that were still in Big Creek trying to save our town and there were a couple hours where we didn't know if they were alive or if the fire had gotten them and I thought ‘oh my goodness. I'm going to know, you know, eight widows,’” Stephanie says.

But everyone survived, a fact that Stephanie says helps her family continue to get through the trauma of losing their home.

“The only thing really besides our faith that has gotten us through this is that absolutely no one lost their lives and there was a point where we were worried,” she says.

Firefighters saved the town’s main buildings including the church, the cafe and the school. For the rest of that year, the Waits drove up every day from Fresno to work. Stephanie recalls one rainy day coming into Big Creek. She turned the corner into the town.

“And there's just nothing, just gloom and burnt trees and it was absolutely horrible and I just, you know, cried all the way to school,” she says.

Now the Waits have a house just outside of Fresno and new teaching jobs. But the wildfire season can bring the trauma all back, Stephanie says.

“It's crazy how the emotions just come up and you just dissolve into this heap that you didn't even know was there under the surface. But it's just very hard and even almost two years later when we're doing fine and life is good, all it takes is a whiff of smoke and we're right back to those days when we found out we lost our home,” she says.

The Waits don’t plan to return to Big Creek. Rebuilding is cost prohibitive and it’s no longer the place they knew.

“And it won’t be in my lifetime anyway,” Stephanie says.

Leigh Ann Davis and her mother, Sharry Preheim, on Preheim's front porch. The house and a few trees around it survived.
Alice Daniel
Leigh Ann Davis and her mother, Sharry Preheim, on Preheim's front porch. The house and a few trees around it survived.

But for those who are staying, whose houses survived the fire, the task at hand is getting used to living in such a changed environment.

Leigh Ann Davis drives her off-road vehicle down Big Creek’s Point Road and looks at a house under construction. The process is slow going.

“They're either stopped waiting for materials, or I don't know,” she says. Then she points out a trailer where one older resident is staying while he waits for his house to be rebuilt.

But Davis’ house survived as did most of the buildings on this road. She shows me the school and the outdoor pool next to it. Davis taught here for 38 years. The pool, damaged in the fire, is actually named after her and there’s a plaque on the fence. Davis’ brother drowned at age 17 in one of the nearby creeks.

“Because he was swimming by himself and hit his head. And so I made it a mission to teach everybody water safety and how to swim and now we don't have a pool. We haven't had it since the fire,” she says. “This makes me the sickest of any of it. Just the sickest.”

Standing on the deck of her 88-year-old mother’s house, Davis points out the canyon where the fire started. A bark beetle infestation and years of drought meant there were plenty of dead trees to burn.

“But now there are no trees,” she says. “I mean there's just sticks and now when the wind comes through here, we lose trees, you know, the sticks fall down.” Without the trees, she adds, it's hotter in the summer and the wind moves faster.

Davis’ mother, Sharry Preheim, moved to Big Creek in 1960. She raised 8 children here and still likes to hike, camp, hunt and fish. In the summers, she sleeps outside.

“I’m not a town lady,” she says, emphasizing how much she likes living in the mountains. She says it was a relief when her son sent her a picture of her house still standing after the fire.

“That was good,” she says. “And I figured I could handle all this. I’d get used to it and I'd be fine.”

They’d evacuated once before. In 1994. The Aspen Fire. That was the year their neighbor Laura Rojas moved here. Sitting in her backyard, Rojas recalls seeing that blaze behind her house.

“You know, I didn't think it could get worse than that,” she says.

But it did with the Creek Fire. Her husband Ramiro is a firefighter.

“He said ‘I've never seen a fire like this in my whole life.’ He'd been fighting fires for 40 years, and he said ‘it is just horrendous, it's a beast,’” Rojas says.

A beast that nearly swallowed a town now trying to rebuild from what’s left.

Alice Daniel was News Director for KVPR from 2019-2022. Daniel has a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and more than 25 years of experience as a print and radio journalist.