Joel Preheim grew up the oldest of eight kids in the tiny town of Big Creek. His 87-year-old mother still lives in his childhood home across the street from his sister. Fortunately, both of their houses survived the Creek Fire, which destroyed many of the area’s homes. But Preheim wasn’t so lucky. He and his wife, Tammy, lost their house near Cressman’s General Store last Monday night.
Preheim had lived in Big Creek for most of his 65 years and only recently retired from Southern California Edison. A couple of years ago, he and Tammy moved to the house on Cressman Road because they wanted some land. Plus the 11-acre property had a stunning view.
Preheim says his son-in-law, a tree cutter for Cal Fire, drove up to where the house was last Tuesday. He first tried to approach it from the front but he noticed that Preheim’s thousand-gallon propane tank had flames coming off the top.
“He hit there and he backed up, ‘we can’t go anymore that way!’” Preheim says. “He went up on the topside and took a snapshot of my house for me on a video.”
A house that was completely gone. “It was surreal,” he says. “I can’t believe how burnt everything is. I can’t believe how black everything is.”
He says he had 75 to 100 feet of clearance as well as a paved road around the house. “You can only be so prepared,” he says. “You do the best you can do.”
As a Pine Ridge volunteer firefighter, he knows how unpredictable fires can be.
The couple had evacuated on Saturday. “We got what we needed,” he says of the essentials they threw into their vehicles. “But we didn’t get some of the stuff, stuff that you can’t replace.”
Tammy kept an important suitcase under the bed packed for just such emergencies. But in their haste to leave, it somehow got left behind.
“We just kind of miscommunicated on it and so we kind of lost our wedding pictures,” he says. They’ve been married 41 years.
Right now they are living in their fifth wheel trailer on a friend’s five-acre property. He says the neighbors have been incredibly supportive.
“We haven’t had to make one meal really. We’ve helped with some meals,” he says. “I’ve never seen so much stuff. We’ve got enough toilet paper to last for a year.”
In fact, he says, they even took some of the donations to a neighboring house that had several evacuees living in fifth wheelers on the property.
Preheim says he’s not sure if they'll rebuild. It all depends on how damaged the forests are.
“The scenery. What’s it gonna look like?” he asks. “Is it gonna be a moonscape or did we save some big trees?”
And if the big pines are all gone, he says, they won’t be back in his lifetime.