Water & Drought

‘Lot of history.’ Fire destroys Sierra Nevada cabin where California measures snowpack

Carol Pearson’s backyard in the Sierra Nevada has witnessed more than its share of California history: It’s been a cattle ranch, stagecoach stop and post office.

The property, a peaceful meadow sitting at 6,820 feet elevation near Echo Summit, is also home to the state Department of Water Resources’ closely-watched Sierra Nevada snowpack survey — a monthly event that attracts hordes of reporters and photographers who tromp through the property on snowshoes. When then-Gov. Jerry Brown ordered Californians to start conserving water during the epic drought, he made the announcement in Pearson’s yard. Pearson would usually watch the proceedings from the window of the small cabin, built in 1938, where she’s lived the past 20 years.

Now Pearson, 67, has been displaced by fire. Her cabin burned to the ground in a chimney fire April 12, killing one of her cats.

“The house was so old, it’s tinder dry,” Pearson said Wednesday, as she returned to the ruins of her home for only the second time since the fire. “It went in 20 minutes.”

The fire has become something of a tragedy for the Department of Water Resources, which has been measuring the snowpack here since 1941. The regular monthly survey will go on as scheduled Thursday, but without the media “out of respect” for Pearson, said DWR spokesman Chris Orrock.

The property is known as Phillips Station, named for rancher Joseph Wells Davis Phillips, who began raising cattle here in the 1850s. He built a hotel to serve the stagecoach traffic, and his daughter, Sierra Nevada “Vade” Phillips, ran a post office on the premises for years. Hotels burned down twice — in 1873 and again in 1911. The famous Sierra Nevada blizzard of January 1952 crushed a dining hall.

“It was a way station and a Pony Express station. It was summer cabins forever,” said Pearson, the great-granddaughter of “Vade” Phillips. “Lot of history.”

Most recently, Phillips has been the site of the state’s snow survey.

Although the state has electronic sensors planted in the ground throughout the Sierra — delivering continuous readings on the health of the snowpack — it’s the monthly manual survey at Phillips that draws the most attention. Manual measurements are taken all over the Sierra, but the 120-acre Phillips site is conveniently located on the south side of Highway 50 and often lures media members from all over Northern California.

Television news trucks clog the road as reporters flood the back of the property. What they see is an almost charmingly low-tech system for calculating how snowy the winter has been: Crews from the Department of Water Resources plunge hollow aluminum tubes into the snow, along a 200-yard stretch behind Pearson’s cabin to calculate snow depth and water content.

Pearson and her family have been “so willing to allow us and the media to invade their house basically five times a year,” said Frank Gehrke, the just-retired chief of the snow survey. Ironically, “they chose to live up there to be left alone.”

It was during the worst stretch of the recent five-year drought that Pearson’s property achieved arguably its greatest fame. On April 1, 2015, Gehrke and Brown strolled through the dry, brown meadow so Brown could make a momentous announcement to the media: He was ordering a 25 percent cutback in urban water consumption, the first such order in California history.

“We’re standing on dry grass, and we should be standing in five feet of snow,” Brown said. “We’re in an historic drought, and that demands unprecedented action.”

He then walked over to Pearson’s cabin to talk history.

“We met Jerry and he made a point of saying his family got here (to California) a year before we did,” Pearson said. “So I said, ‘OK, Jerry.’

“We just took it in stride,” she said of the governor’s visit. “Of course he had his entourage.”

The fire spared several buildings on the property — mostly summer cabins owned by others — but left Pearson to find lodging with a friend in Strawberry, a few miles west. The cabin was uninsured, and a GoFundMe account has been set up by Pearson’s daughter Abbey. It’s raised $2,675 toward a goal of $90,000. The money will go toward rebuilding.

“It’s my mountain, so yep, it can be rebuilt,” Carol Pearson said, her voice cracking a bit. “It’s in the women of this family — we’re kind of tough old birds.”