Looking Toward the Oak Fire from My Front Yard, I Thought, This Is Going to Burn My House Down
Last week my house burned to the ground, and if that’s not bad enough, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder
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On July 22, the Oak Fire started in Midpines, California, 37 miles from Yosemite Valley. At the time of publication, 18,532 acres and 41 homes and buildings have been destroyed. This is the story of one Mariposa resident who lost his house in the fire.
On Friday, July 22, I’d just returned home from hosting an e-bike ride with a family of six—leading bike tours is my side gig—when I noticed smoke nearby. My house is down Triangle Road, next to the Butterfly Creek Winery in Mariposa, California, just 40 miles from Yosemite National Park. I’ve called Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada foothills home off and on for 30 years. They are my favorite places in the world.
The flames were visible from my front yard, beyond Carter Road, which climbs Buckingham Mountain, near where we were riding. The fire looked to be growing quickly, but it was also far enough away that it didn’t seem threatening.
Concerned but not overly alarmed, the family and I piled into our van and headed toward Midpines to get a closer look. Snarling flames paralleled Highway 140, and thick billowing smoke filled the sky. Temps were in the high nineties, and a breeze blew. As we passed the Midpines Country Store, we decided to turn back because I was worried the road might close, and we didn’t want to get stuck.
Once we flipped back, the fire’s severity increased. The flames were more significant now, the fire more intense. We agreed that we needed to evacuate my house as soon as possible and get everything to a safe location.
Phone reception is non-existent in the Sierra foothills, so instead of cutting back to Triangle, we went to town so I could call for help. Fire trucks sped down the highway. The sky was orange. I rang everyone I could think of, including my friend and Stone Nudes photographer Dean Fidelman from Yosemite West. He tried to come with his van to pick up my e-bikes, but a closed road stopped him. I also called Josh Holmes and his son Jax in nearby Nipinnawasee, who immediately got in their car and drove to my place.
We sped back home and everyone grabbed what they could. Josh and Jax carried boxes of books, climbing gear, and technical outerwear. A lot of my stuff was stored in bins and big haul bags, so it didn’t take long to fill my SUV and Josh’s pickup. I didn’t bother unplugging power cables from the wall; I didn’t care which of my many bikes went on the rack; I assumed I would be right back to move more gear. Looking toward the fire from my front yard, I thought, “This is going to burn my house down tomorrow.”
I loaded my 100-pound boxer, Fenster, into the front seat, cranked the windows down since the AC was out, and we drove fast to Paul and Julia Wignall’s place, owners of Skydive Yosemite, on Mount Bullion, about 21 miles away. Due to detours from closed roads, it took more than 40 minutes to get there. I unloaded, lifted Fenster back in the car, and prepared to get as much stuff into my vehicle on the next run as possible.
[pullquote]It looked like I was peering into the gates of Hell.[/pullquote]
New roadblocks kept me from returning. I took a back way to one junction only to be stopped. “The fire is throwing flame a mile or more down the road,” one officer told me. “Someone almost just got taken out from a speeding emergency response vehicle,” said another.
Out of options, my attention turned to Fenster and making sure he didn’t overheat. (Boxers have short little noses, which make them prone to heat stroke.) I tried three bars and restaurants, but two were closed due to fire; the third, the Grove House, was open, so off we went. I hadn’t had the time or the insight to pack his leashes, so I made one by ripping a Fourth of July ribbon off a pole on Main Street and tying it to his collar.
Soon the pub filled up and everyone talked about the fire. CAL FIRE described it as “extreme with frequent runs, spot fires, and group torching.” As I write this on July 26, it’s 16,000 acres and is now the largest California wildfire of the year.
“Your place is gone,” everyone told me. I had no reason to doubt them.
The news—the loss of my home—didn’t faze me. I’d already spent the week in and out of the hospital, and I was freaking out because tuffs of hair suddenly started to fall out of my head. A visit to the family physician one day turned to the emergency room the next.
The doctor told me I had alopecia, and he didn’t know why. His choice of language (“chronic illness”) and my rapidly deteriorating condition made me think I could die. In short, I was battling an autoimmune disease for an unknown reason. This condition will significantly change how I look, too. Hair falls out of my head and may never grow back. If it does, it comes back white and wispy. I can’t grow a beard, and I fear my eyebrows and eyelashes are next. I cried in the ER, bawled alone in my house, and cried on my landlord, Dale’s, shoulder. I wailed away, sobbing like I was at a funeral. But I was just alone at home.
Overwhelmed with thoughts of death and my newly balding head, on July 22, I went back to Mount Bullion and pulled up to the summit. There, I watched flames devouring my old neighborhood. Under the blackness of night, burning red lit up the hillsides. It looked like I was peering into the gates of Hell.
Early reports said the blaze charred ten homes, which was later updated to 41. The flames took out every inch of terrain I’d e-biked this year. My Strava report says I spent 150 hours since January in that area, covering some 218,000 vertical feet and 1,800 miles in the process. I was absolutely in love with that region, which climbs into Jerseydale and the Sierra National Forest. You can see into Yosemite at one spot and directly at El Capitan. Now, everything is gone.