Brock Kant first heard of the Creek fire in an early morning text from his father.
Fire down by Camp Sierra near Big Creek, FYI.
Brock stepped outside of his cabin, looked up through the pines into the mountain blue sky and replied.
A fire had broken out the night before, 10 miles to the west and down a 2,000-foot grade near the small Sierra Nevada town of Big Creek. Firefighters had responded with an aerial attack, limiting the fire’s spread through the dry, parched hills.
By that Saturday morning, though, the blaze had begun to explode.
Brock’s five-bedroom cabin on the north shore of Huntington Lake was nearly 100 years old. He had lived there for four years with his girlfriend and their 2-year-old son, a cousin and roommate.
They weren’t concerned. Every season brought new fires, and crews had always been able to manage them. Then a neighbor came by shouting for everyone to get out.
“Emergency evacuation,” he repeated.
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Brock, 23, looked again to the sky, and he and his cabin mates started packing, grabbing food, clothes, pictures, kid toys, the PlayStation and two 65-inch televisions. They didn’t expect to be gone for long.
Driving east toward the fork with Highway 168, they slowed through the town of Lakeshore on the northeast corner of the lake. His grandfather was talking to employees. Brock stopped the truck and leaned out the window.
“We’re going down,” he said.
Stephen Sherry shook his head. As the owner of Lakeshore Resort, he felt he had too much to lose to leave the place in the hands of local authorities, and this year he wasn’t able to get fire insurance for the complex. He and about a dozen others weren’t going to have anything to do with an evacuation.
They had already begun dousing the place with water. Large hoses snaked from the roadside hydrants, and a giant tractor, its wheels as tall as any man, was ready to start cutting a firebreak around the place.
“We’re staying,” said Sherry, 80, in defiance of anyone who would try to order him out.
Sherry tried to persuade his grandson to stay. But all that went through Brock’s mind was the image of the captain going down with the ship.
The Kant and the Sherry families are well-known around Huntington and Shaver lakes, lying east of Fresno and now burning at the heart of the massive Creek fire, which has blown through nearly 175,000 acres.
In the last 30 years, the families have built a small empire, based on the resort and a tree-cutting business, and left a broad stamp among the communities of cabins and camps scattered throughout these rugged mountains.
Sherry’s daughter Gabrielle, 49, tells the story of her dad, who for years manufactured electric wheelchairs out of a shop in Hermosa Beach. The family lived in Palos Verdes and spent their Augusts at Huntington Lake.
“It was the highlight of my life every summer before school started,” she said.
In the late 1980s, they were driving by Lakeshore Resort, and Sherry, who had sold his business in Los Angeles, saw a sign: “If you’re interested in this property, contact the Fresno Municipal Court.”
The resort, built in 1922 for workers on the neighboring dams, was run down but extensive. Lying on 33 acres, it included a hotel, a restaurant and bar, a dance hall and 28 small cabins for visitors, and Sherry was able to pick it up for $75,000 at an auction on the Fresno courthouse steps.
Niles was 30 and fresh out of the Marines when he arrived at Huntington Lake. He got a job as a cook at the resort and fell in love with Gabrielle. They married in 1998.
Butte County has been hit with disaster after disaster. But there’s a resigned resilience among residents even as they face the North Complex fire.
Eager to make a name for himself, Niles built up a firewood company into the Huntington Lake Tree Service and provided employment for most of his family, including Brock and his sister Emily, a cousin and a few young men in the area.
The pine bark beetle, which was killing broad swaths of the forest in the Sierra, had started a boom for anyone with a chainsaw and the skill to drop trees nearly 200 feet tall.
Niles and Gabrielle bought their first home down by Auberry, a nearby town. In 2015 — their business doing well — they bought a second house and five acres on Tollhouse Road, soon turning it into their dream home. The next year they bought Brock the cabin, as well as Shaver Stables, where Gabrielle was able to share her love of horses and these mountains with visitors.
Now, all that they had created lay in the path of a wildfire that was growing faster than anyone could have imagined.
“I suspect I’ve lost absolutely everything I own,” Niles said. “I hope for the best, but I’m not holding out much hope. I don’t even know if my father-in-law is alive.”
Brock left his grandfather behind and raced down Highway 168 toward the family home on Tollhouse Road. He wanted to drop off his gear, and with luck make another run back up to Huntington Lake. A pyrocumulus cloud was building up in the west.
“It was like nothing I had ever seen,” he said. “There was no smoke in the air, just this massive cloud billowing into the sky.”
Gabrielle was gearing up for work at the stables that Saturday morning when she heard about the fire. She called Niles, asking if they should evacuate the horses. They had 18 in the corral and needed a plan.
But the Creek fire was 10 miles away, and Niles thought they’d be safe.
The pandemic had made the summer the strangest and yet the best season they ever had. Stay-at-home orders meant a late opening, but they were soon filling their calendar with reservations.
Gabrielle took a small group of six riders out on the trail.
By early afternoon, though, she started to worry. The highway out of Fresno was closed. Cars from Huntington Lake were rushing by; fire engines were streaming north, sirens blaring, lights flashing. The wind was starting to blow, and the power went out.
Friends from a local ski resort pulled into the parking lot at the stables. They had been evacuated.
“I think you need to get out of here,” one of them told her.
Gabrielle started throwing all her tack — saddles and bridles — into a trailer and decided to split the herd.
Half would go to a friend’s ranch in Clovis, the rest to Auberry where Gabrielle’s parents lived.
It was better than turning them loose.
By that night, the Kant family had gathered at the home on Tollhouse Road. They still hadn’t heard from Sherry up at Lakeshore. The cell tower had burned down, Brock learned, so there would be no way to reach his grandfather.
Niles had wanted to drive to Huntington Lake to pick him up, but Gabrielle would have nothing of it. Just an ember, she thought, and the resort would be gone.
“We’re not trained firefighters,” she told him. “We can’t fight this.”
She knew how stubborn her father was, and she was angry. It is wrong to put your family through all this, she said.
In recent years, the resort had divided the family — management decisions, upkeep, costs, all the squabbles that take place in any family business — but it was also what kept them together and the reason they come into these mountains in the first place.
Brock tried to understand why his grandfather would want to stay behind and put himself at risk.
“That’s his whole life up there, not even just Lakeshore but the entire area,” he said. “He’s been there for so long, I think, in his mind he can’t leave.”
That night they got dinner from a pizza joint down the road. They had earned themselves a breather, glad at the very least to have gotten some equipment out of Huntington and the horses off the mountain.
The home on Tollhouse Road was their brief sanctuary.
Gabrielle called it her little artisan house — for the man who shod her horses and made a wrought-iron handrail with oak leaves and birds, for the contractor who fit the tongue-and-groove so snugly no spider could ever get in, and another who finished the upstairs bathroom with river rock that reminded her of the local hot springs.
But the view was the centerpiece. Mornings she and Niles would wake up to the sunrise over the Kings Canyon drainage and the 10,000-foot peaks of the Sierra, often covered with snow.
By Sunday morning, the Creek fire was pouring out in all directions. It scaled the ridge into the Huntington Lake basin. It chewed through the forests toward Shaver Lake, and it forced the California National Guard to coordinate a harrowing night rescue of more than 200 people stranded at a reservoir known as Mammoth Pool.
The Kant family woke to their own chaos at the home on Tollhouse Road.
The sky was an eerie orange. It looked like dusk, Brock said. Smoke was everywhere with ash falling from the sky.
They knew they needed to get out, and as they tried to make a plan, they kept checking their phone for updates. Still no news about Sherry or the status of Lakeshore Resort.
Niles’ priority was to try to save as much equipment as possible. He had to hold onto his business; it would be the only way they could survive in the months ahead. He knew how devastating these fires were.
Over the last four years, his tree business had expanded beyond Huntington and Shaver lakes. He won contracts to remove hazardous trees in the aftermath of the massive Tubbs and Atlas fires that ripped through suburbs in Northern California in 2017, and of the Camp fire that destroyed the town of Paradise the next year.
Gabrielle grabbed photo albums and pictures off the walls and made decisions that left her second-guessing as soon as she drove away, such as leaving behind the four-foot handsaw that Niles had given to her on their 15th wedding anniversary, painted with a scene from Huntington Lake.
But mostly she wanted to get everyone off the mountain. She had lived through the last big evacuation, from the 1994 Big Creek fire. It had spared Huntington Lake, but since then she had watched the forests grow thicker with brush and more and more trees die from the bark beetle.
But her family wasn’t listening to her. They were overwhelmed, she realized, caught up in the belief that a fire of this scale — one that could destroy all they had built — was just not possible.
“I never would think that in one episode, it could all disappear,” Niles said. “I can see it getting wiped out with different fires, but to lose it all in one — that grew as fast as it did — is unreal.”
And still there was no news from Sherry at Lakeshore.
After a day of ferrying personal belongings and business equipment to friends and family living on the outskirts of Fresno, the Kant family found itself divided and alone on Sunday night.
“No one was seeing eye to eye,” Brock said, leaving everyone to find their own separate places for the night.
Brock and his family stayed with a friend who had gotten news by satellite phone from Lakeshore.
The word was that Sherry and a few others had put together a flotilla — a pontoon boat and a powerboat — and taken it out to the middle of the lake.
Brock tried to understand this. He was sure that the fire crews and law enforcement, working the north side of the lake, didn’t want them to be there. Evacuations were meant to keep everyone safe, but his grandfather had other ideas. Getting out on the lake meant he and the others would be left alone.
“I know they did what they could to save the resort, and after that I believe they went to the lake for a safe place to be and not to be bothered,” he said.
On Monday morning, Niles — who spent the night alone in the house on Tollhouse Road — got busy rescuing more of his equipment.
As he was getting in his truck to leave, he looked up and watched a helicopter and plane drop water on approaching flames. The sky was dark, filled with ash. He gave his property a look and wished there was some way to take Old Orange, his first diesel truck, a ’96 Dodge 12-valve. There just wasn’t enough time.
On his way down the mountain, he ran the math, calculating that with help from Brock, his cousin and two friends, he had saved at least $100,000 worth of equipment. He told himself it was just stuff, but sometimes stuff matters. This was their livelihood.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle was having to coordinate another evacuation of her horses, fitting nine animals in two trailers that typically accommodated six.
The memory brings tears to her eyes.
“We were totally overwhelmed,” she said. “And I had to keep moving. I did all that I thought I could do. But I can’t do enough.”
By Tuesday afternoon, Niles was driving across the Central Valley heading to Morro Bay. He needed time to try to figure out a plan, a future for his family. They depended on him.
“It is so sad,” he said. “From what I heard, there is not much left of anything. But all my family made it out. Hopefully, my father-in-law did too.”
Gabrielle was staying with friends on the outskirts of Clovis. They had a large trailer where she and her two dogs had set up.
“I feel like my whole mountain is hurting,” she said.
She monitored videos posted by the county supervisor who was at Shaver Lake, and she saw the roadside sign for the stable still intact.
“I have hope that the stable is OK,” she said. “I don’t know about our house.”
There was no news from Lakeshore Resort, no way to know for sure if Sherry was safe.
Early Wednesday, she got a call from a neighbor who was working on front lines near Shaver Lake. He had managed to get on Tollhouse Road to see the extent of the damage.
Their home was no more.
Gabrielle was in tears, driving along, on the road outside of Clovis to feed her horses.
“Everything burned down,” she said. “It all just burned down. I’m in shock and awe that this monster of fire made it all the way down to my home. I’m in a living hell, trying to figure this out.”
She hoped to find a little comfort in the company with the animals she worked so hard to save.
Brock with his family and friends had found a rental home hundreds of miles away in Clearlake, where the air might be clearer and where they wouldn’t have to be evacuated again.
He was certain that their cabin had been lost in the fire’s advance along the north shore of the lake. He wished he had grabbed the two .22 rifles that Niles had given him.
But there was some good news. Brock had heard from a cousin that Lakeshore Resort was still standing and his grandfather was no longer at Huntington Lake.
Niles confirmed the story: Stephen Sherry had been arrested on Wednesday by Fresno police, who drove him down the mountain in handcuffs in the back of their vehicle.
The family was relieved.
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