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Wildfire Devastates SoCal Edison Community of Big Creek Despite Heroic Efforts

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Photo of Big Creek, California, on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, after the Creek Fire.S
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The tiny Sierra community of Big Creek, which is home to Southern California Edison employees, lost many homes in the Creek Fire on Saturday, said Chris Donnelly, chief of the Huntington Lake Volunteer Fire Department.

Donnelly’s description of the devastation there was confirmed by Toby Wait, a Big Creek resident who is the principal and superintendent of Big Creek Elementary School.

“About half the private homes in town burned down,” Wait said. “Words cannot even begin to describe the devastation of this community. And it is a very close-knit community.”

An elementary school, church, library, historic general store, and a major hydroelectric plant were spared in the community of about 200 residents, Wait told the Fresno Bee.

Wait contradicted a previous report that the school was lost in the fire. He said that the school’s eaves caught fire but were extinguished.

In a text message to GV Wire℠ reporter Nancy Price on Sunday, Wait wrote: “School standing.”

“It was like midnight out there and lightning and thunder coming out of the smoke cloud that the fire created. Scary, yeah, we were doing lookout. Scary’s the right word.” — Huntington Lake Fire Chief Chris Donnelly, describing the Creek Fire on Saturday

In a fire department update sent Sunday morning to Huntington Lake cabin owners, Donnelly said that recently retired Big Creek Fire Chief LaDonna Crane and Big Creek Fire Chief Bryan Toll, “along with several members of the department heroically fought towering flames into the evening yesterday to try to save the town and give residents time to escape.”

View of the Creek Fire in the vicinity of Big Creek on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020 (Facebook/Laura Lori Kettman McMillan)

‘Furious Flames Ran up the Canyons on Both Sides of Big Creek’

Describing the Creek Fire’s explosive expansion Saturday, Donnelly said that “furious flames ran up the canyons on both sides of Big Creek and according to Chief Crane, all of the homes on Point Road are gone, as is the school. In addition, several homes in the ‘company town’ also burned.”

Donnelly said that the Big Creek Fire Department was ordered to evacuate the community at 8 p.m. Saturday, leaving only strike teams to battle the blaze.

“At 10 p.m. the town lost water and it was restored by two brave firefighters, who re-entered the town and established a water supply from the penstocks,” Donnelly said.

Five Cabins Burned at Huntington Lake on Saturday Night

Donnelly said that sheriff’s deputies raced to Big Creek at about 6 a.m. Saturday to tell residents to evacuate.

He also said that smoke and turbulence hampered aerial efforts to contain the fire.

Donnelly is a Catholic monk who has volunteered at the department during the summers for 22 years. He told the Visalia-Times Delta that he hadn’t seen anything like what he witnessed Saturday.

“It was like midnight out there and lightning and thunder coming out of the smoke cloud that the fire created,” Donnelly said. “Scary, yeah, we were doing lookout. Scary’s the right word.”

According to Donnelly, five Huntington Lake cabins had burned as of Sunday morning.

A fire engine races across the back dam at Huntington Lake on Sunday. (Facebook/Clovis Fire Department)

Photo of the Creek Fire

A firefighter uses a hose to try to extinguish flames from a burning structure while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Big Creek. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

 

Bill McEwen is news director and columnist for GV Wire. He joined GV Wire in August 2017 after 37 years at The Fresno Bee. With The Bee, he served as Opinion Editor, City Hall reporter, Metro columnist, sports columnist and sports editor through the years. His work has been frequently honored by the California Newspapers Publishers Association, including authoring first-place editorials in 2015 and 2016. Bill and his wife, Karen, are proud parents of two adult sons, and they have two grandsons. You can contact Bill at 559-492-4031 or at Send an Email