In the aftermath of the devastating Nevada County fire in Northern California (see Church News, Sept. 17), Church members began to return to their homes, not knowing if they would find them intact or in ruins.
All members of the Penn Valley Ward, Auburn California Stake, had to evacuate at one time or another as well as a few members of the Grass Valley 1st Ward and Comptonville Branch. Some fled as walls of fire roared toward them.Reports during the peak of the chaos that certain areas suffered total destruction led to the assumption that many members had lost their homes. Incredibly, the final count was only three.
The blaze, dubbed "the '49er fire" because of its origin on Highway 49 in Gold Rush country, began about 9 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 11. By afternoon it had covered miles, leaping into areas where members, unsuspecting, had left to attend Church.
The terrain of most of Nevada County is rugged, covered with brush, pine, oak and manzanita. Many residents live on such acreage, where they own farm animals. Others live in exclusive lake communities behind security gates, where they felt relatively safe from the ever-present danger of fire in the dry season.
With news that the fire was spreading into Lake Wildwood, Rough and Ready, and Penn Valley, members were alerted during sacrament meeting and advised to return to their homes. Some had a few hours to assess the situation and gather belongings before being told to evacuate. Others hung on until the next day.
In the meantime, Jack Wood, high councilor in charge of emergency preparedness in the stake, and John Klein, high council adviser to the Penn Valley Ward, began to put into motion the emergency preparedness plans formulated long ago by priesthood leaders of the stake.
A communication center set up in the Nevada City Ward meetinghouse served as a clearinghouse for information, keeping in touch on an hourly basis with Wood as he attempted to trace every member in the troubled areas.
During the first hours, a request for food went out to the Relief Society and within an hour and a half the kitchen was filled. As displaced members began to come in, the center was prepared.
On Tuesday, Sept. 13, the fire jumped Highway 20 and engulfed the area around the Dale Tracy home in Penn Valley, as Nancyan Tracy was attempting to leave with her elderly mother for safer ground. The firefighters, arriving a step ahead of the raging fire, ordered her to remain as the flames closed off all exits.
Sister Tracy and her mother sat in their truck in the middle of their lawn and watched as her husband, two sons and Wood helped the firemen save their home. At one point, flames enveloped the fire engine and a helicopter dropped down and doused it with an enormous bucket of water.
That evening, after the fire moved on past them and the house remained standing, they had no electrical power. Sister Tracy, needing to feed her family, baked potatoes in the smoldering embers of their woodpile in the backyard.
Stake and ward leaders made final rounds to check on members. They approached a road where 27 out of the 30 homes had burned to the ground. They had heard the Ellis Lambson house was one of them and they wanted to assess the damage. Near the end of the road, they saw the solitary house. On the porch sat Mamie Lambson, stringing beans. She set aside her work for hugs and tears.
In Lake Wildwood, where 13 houses were demolished, the John Grant home survived, despite the charred window frame and heat so intense the window burst.
While the "'49er" fire claimed more than 140 houses, firefighters saved thousands. Three that they could not save belonged to Alan and Gretchen Clayson, Penn Valley Ward; Terry and Deby Houghton of Grass Valley 1st Ward; and Ralph and Joan Robinson, Penn Valley Ward.
The loss for the Claysons is heavy as they lost a house to fire just before Christmas last year. Restoring this one will be a stake project.
The Houghtons are recent converts.
On Sept. 17, the Auburn Stake organized a recovery work party involving about 200 men, women and youths representing every ward and branch.
At the home of Dan and Sue Gillming, Penn Valley Ward, a neighbor seemed annoyed when he saw so many people arriving, apparently thinking they were touring the fire area. When a crew of 10 to 12 went to work on his own property, he was visibly moved. As they finished, he took pictures and thanked the members, explaining that he had lost a home in a flood two years ago and he couldn't believe strangers would come to help him.
Dan Downey of Nevada City Ward led a crew to the rural Jones Bar Road area, searching for anyone in need of help. A local teacher and his wife lost their home and needed to cut and clear burned trees to prepare for a new home. When help was offered they were amazed and said, "But you don't know us." Downey assured them they wanted to help anyway. The woman wept when told that the group was from the Church.