‘Utter devastation’: Residents return to burned homes and shattered dreams

The smoldering remains of a structure destroyed by the Creek fire in Fresno County.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The driver of the dusty pickup slowed and lowered his window, reached out and cautiously lifted the steel cable that was hovering over the dirt road and connected to a downed power pole on the shoulder, blocking his exit from this burned out Auberry hamlet.

The driver, who declined to give his name because he was in an evacuated area of the massive Creek fire in the Sierra, had two passengers — a local firefighter who used his connections to get them all access into the area and also refused to give his name, and resident Mark Van Aacken. The fire has burned more than 160,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of structures.

Together, the trio were surveying their town’s damage along Shaver Springs Road off Tollhouse Road and relaying what they found back to anxious neighbors in limbo since the evacuation, unsure if their life will continue as normal once the roads are opened or if they have to rebuild anew from the ash.


Boats at the Shaver Lake marina sit docked as smoke hangs in the air during the Creek Fire in Shaver Lake, CA.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

It’s an act of bittersweet generosity that mountain residents throughout California do for each other every year, when the homegrown intel of backroads and relationships forged over the years with neighbors pays off with access when the official government order is to wait.

“We have resources, we know everybody,” the driver said.

For Van Aacken, Wednesday’s access deepened the pain he felt Tuesday night, when a firefighter showed him a photo of his burned down home.

“But still a picture doesn’t do it justice apparently,” Van Aacken, 40, said. “Seeing it firsthand is kind of another situation. I’m kind of bummed my wife isn’t with me to see it at the moment.”

Van Aacken and his wife moved to Auberry almost four years ago from Arizona to be closer to family in the area and to settle down and raise their twin 7-year-old daughters in the great outdoors.

“It’s been great, 4-wheeling all the time ... just being in the outdoors away from the city life,” he said. “It’s always like camping, it’s the small town, you know?”

The skies around the Bay Area and other parts of Northern California took on an eerie glow as smoke from several fires enveloped the region.

The family has kept tabs on the state’s rash of fires over the last month and knew their area was at risk, so they evacuated as soon as Fresno County sheriff’s deputies knocked on their door and told them to leave.

“I feel like we’ve just gotten away with it every year,” Van Aacken said, referring to their annual fire risk. “So I feel like we were a little relaxed about the fact that every tiny fire that came up they dropped so [many resources] on it we never thought it’d be that big an issue.”

He then caught himself, saying “granted it always seemed every year like, ‘maybe this year is the year’ ya know? But …”

Just uphill and across a road from Van Aacken’s home, his father’s was still standing Wednesday. In another area of the forest, his brother’s home was lost.

“We were just hoping at least one of the homes was still standing,” he said.

For the two other men in the truck with Van Aacken, the day was an emotional rollercoaster.

“Highs and lows, one victory and then utter devastation,” the driver said.

A vehicle streaks by as Fresno County Sheriff Deputy Jeffery Shipman stands along CA-168 as the Creek Fire creeps closer to Shaver Lake.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

The driver’s second passenger, the local firefighter, was helping relay information to neighbors.

“We came up here because we don’t know,” the firefighter said. Crews have been guessing on where there have been successess and failures and relaying that information to him but no one has shown photos to prove it, he said.

“I’m not going to hear anybody else’s words,” he said. “A lot of our neighbors had no idea so we came up here like ‘hey we’re going to check everybody out,’ and we’ll tell everyone back in town, ‘Hey man, your house is gone. Yours isn’t.’”

The men had already broken the news two at least two other residents that their homes were gone when they were leaving the area with Van Aacken in the truck.

“I already told them because they want to know as soon as you find out,” the firefighter said. “Obviously they’re super upset but they wanted to know ... it’s worse waiting.”

“That’s the worst part,” Van Aacken said in agreement. “Once you know, you can start to make decisions on what to do next.”