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What life looks for those who stayed and left after Big Creek's fire 2 years ago

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For people who flee their homes in extreme weather events, there's often a choice - return and rebuild or leave for good. Two years after one of California's single biggest fires, KVPR's Alice Daniel checks in with families who navigated these choices.

ALICE DANIEL, BYLINE: The creek fire was swift and huge when it swept through the little town of Big Creek. It took out almost half the homes there. Most people evacuated on the early morning of September 5, 2020. But some stayed behind to try and save the town. For a few hours, no one knew if they'd made it out.

STEPHANIE WAIT: And I thought, oh, my goodness, I'm going to know, you know, eight widows.

DANIEL: That's Stephanie Wait. She and her husband raised four children in Big Creek. It was a tightknit mountain community in the Sierra Nevada built around a hydroelectric plant.

WAIT: What we felt and what we had as a Big Creek family kind of disappeared that day when the fire came through.

DANIEL: The town lost 41 houses, but everyone survived. That's a fact that Wait says has helped her family get through the trauma of losing their home. Firefighters saved the church, the cafe and the school. For the rest of that year, Wait, a teacher at Big Creek Elementary, drove up every day from Fresno to work. She recalls one rainy day coming into Big Creek.

WAIT: And there's just nothing - just gloom and burnt trees. And I just, you know, cried all the way to school.

DANIEL: Now the Waits and their two large dogs live in a house with a tiny yard outside of Fresno.

WAIT: Oh, here he comes. Oh, do you have a shoe?

DANIEL: They both have new jobs, and they won't return to Big Creek. Even if they thought they could afford to rebuild, it's just too sad.

WAIT: It's all gone. What we miss and what we love and what we mourn is gone.

DANIEL: On this recent day in Big Creek, Leigh Ann Davis drives her off-road vehicle on the main street, past one house under construction. It's slow going, she says.

LEIGH ANN DAVIS: They're either stopped, waiting for materials, or I don't know.

DANIEL: Another delay - insurance money takes a long time to come through. One resident is living here in a temporary home.

DAVIS: Living in a trailer, waiting for his house to get built.

DANIEL: Choosing to stay can also be heartbreaking. Davis shows me the school where she taught for 38 years. The outdoor pool damaged in the fire is named after her. Davis' brother drowned at age 17 in one of the nearby creeks.

DAVIS: 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.

DANIEL: It's unclear when, if ever, the pool will be rebuilt. Davis' house survived. So did her mom's house across the street. The two of them are on her mom's deck looking at the charred landscape. Even before the fire, drought and a beetle infestation had thinned out the trees.

DAVIS: But now there are no trees, somewhat. I mean, there's just sticks.

DANIEL: Davis' mother, Sharry Preheim, raised eight kids here. At the age of 88, she says she's been through worse.

SHARRY PREHEIM: And I figured I could handle all this. I'd get used to it. It'd be fine.

DANIEL: She still finds greener spaces in the mountains to hike, camp, hunt and fish.

PREHEIM: I'm not a town lady.

DANIEL: Old-timers here like Preheim have experienced fires before. But as one neighbor said, the creek fire was a kind he'd never seen. It was just horrendous, he said - a horrendous beast. For NPR News, I'm Alice Daniel in Big Creek, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Daniel
Alice Daniel is News Director for Valley Public Radio. 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.
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