As It Happens

Californian rushed her kids to safety while her husband stayed to battle the flames

In California, one family's lifetime of possessions, and the roof over their heads, is gone after the massive wildfire rolls through their town. But they are grateful to be alive. 

Nettie Carroll ultimately lost her home to the Creek fire, but her family is safe and sound

A Pacific Gas and Electric worker looks up at the advancing Creek Fire along Highway 168 on Tuesday near Alder Springs, Calif. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/The Associated Press)

Transcript

When the flames started moving toward Big Creek, Calif., Nettie Carroll only had a few hours to pack up her stuff and hit the road with her two children and their cat in the middle of the night. 

Carroll is one of thousands of Californians who have been forced from their homes in recent weeks as dozens of fires blaze through the state during a particularly dry and devastating wildfire season.

The Creek Fire has been charging through tens of thousands of hectares, engulfing whole towns in its path. It destroyed Carroll's home, but her family is safe. 

She spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off on Tuesday from a hotel in Clovis, Calif. Here is part of their conversation.

At what point did you realize that this fire was getting too close for comfort and you had to just get out?

Saturday morning, probably around between 3 and 4, we realized we needed to pack up and go. And we left Big Creek about 5:15.

How did you decide what to take with you and what to leave behind? You didn't have much time to do that, did you?

No, we didn't have much time. Thankfully, last year we had had a little preparation just because we were concerned if there ever were a fire, and I did put some important family documents in like a file folder carrier box. So I had that already ready to go. 

I got our family Bibles and got my husband's guitar. And actually, I was able to get my daughters' school yearbooks from Big Creek Elementary School, which they have both attended.

What were the things you had to leave behind that are now lost that you regret? 

Well, I got my husband's guitar, but I didn't get my guitar. [laughs] And some books, some special books that I had. And, you know, just special items that you just can't replace.

It may seem kind of piddly but, you know, all the photo albums are gone. That's probably, you know, one of the hardest things. I was able to save small drives, like USB drives, that I had some photos saved on, but I'm not sure which ones I have. But the albums themselves that we've had for 20 years, those are all gone.

A table stands outside the destroyed Cressman's General Store after the Creek Fire burned through Fresno County, Calif., on Tuesday. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

As you were leaving town, I guess you got a pretty good look at the fire. I've seen just amazing images of the look of it, and people have mentioned the sound of those fires. What did it look like as you were leaving?

As we were driving up, we could see on our left just ... just the brightness of the flames and all the embers. And then periodically you'd see explosions of some kind. And it was close. It was just so close. And it was amazing how quickly the fire moved.

What was it like to be in that?

Well, I had my my daughters with me, and my daughter's cat, and my husband stayed back at the house to help fight the fire and try to protect our home. And I was really concerned for him. But he said he would be coming out soon.

And so I had the girls with me and I knew we had a place to go. It was scary. But at the time, I was just functioning as, "OK, we need to get out of here."

Very little sleep for the past, you know, I don't know how many hours. So I was very tired and kind of fatigued with all the emotional, mental toil, but concerned for my neighbours as well, my friends and neighbours who were in the same predicament.

And your husband is safe?

He is safe now, yeah. I was very worried for him on Saturday because the people who are still there in Big Creek were trapped. They could not get out either exit. And the fire was sort of moving in on them from kind of all sides.

But we had some great fire crews there and some hardworking people that just did a phenomenal job. And everybody that was trapped there was able to get out after a few hours.

So they caravanned out the main road, which is an absolute relief because, you know, everything else doesn't even compare to that. 

People are evacuated from Mammoth Pool, Calif., on a California National Guard Chinook helicopter. (California National Guard/Reuters)

How did you get the news that your home had been destroyed?

My husband, who was there as long as he could be there, he was trying to board up the windows and he's the one who sent me a message and let me know that our home was lost.

And how did you and your daughters react to that when you got that news from your husband?

I had just gone from my in-laws' house to another cabin that someone had offered and I was trying to lay down and get a 15-minute power nap or something, and I got the text from my husband, and I was alone. And of course, I broke down. That was very hard news for me.

And after a few minutes, I went back to his parents' house and I told the girls. They were not sure if they could actually believe me, but, you know, soon they knew I was telling them what Dad said.

They're very resilient. I have a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old. And, of course, the 15-year-old was taking it harder first because ... she has 15 years of memories there.

Residents evacuate with their pets during the Creek fire in the North Fork area of unincorporated Madera County, Calif., on Monday. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Nettie, I'm sorry for your loss of your home and all those memories.

Well, thank you so much. I appreciate it. And it is a very hard thing, but every person who has lost their home or is even uncertain, you know, it's terribly sad and tragic.

But it does help to know that we're all from the same community and we're all in this together, and there's just so many people throwing support our way. And anybody who's been involved in this fire, so many people are donating items to different churches for anybody to just come pick up what they need. And so there's just an overwhelming amount of love for the whole area. So that's been really redeeming.

What are you going to do now?

We are going to take one day at a time and we're going to see if we can find a place to stay for a semi-long-term, you know, rather than just a hotel, try to find something with a kitchen and maybe a yard for a dog to be able to get outside. That kind of thing.

Well, Nettie, I'm glad that you and your family are safe. That's the most important thing. And I'm sorry again for what you've lost. And it sounds like you're a pretty strong.

Well, thank you. We have a strong community and we have a great God who loves us. And our church survived the fire in our little town square there, so we do still have things to be hopeful for.


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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