Every day for the last week, Fred and Diana Adams have made their way to an Apple Hill winery to peer across a vast, forested canyon and see if their house is still standing.
On Monday afternoon, as they pulled into the Wofford Acres Vineyards parking lot, they saw their luck was holding. As Cal Fire helicopters roared overhead on their way to drop retardant on the King fire in the Eldorado National Forest, the couple could plainly see their Swansboro-area home perched on a hillside and surrounded by newly cleared areas courtesy of bulldozers that are fighting the fire to save their community.
“People have been working out there continuously,” said Fred Adams, 58. “I’ve heard they’re monitoring, watching for looters. They have security out there.
“I’ve heard they have firetrucks and fire crews ready to get to work and they’re continuing to open up more firebreaks and fire lines. It’s reassuring to see that other folks are really caring enough to do that for us.”
Adams and his family, including his 94-year-old father, were forced out of the 120-acre property they have owned since 1938 on Tuesday morning, when the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office came by and told them to flee.
“The sheriff came and said, ‘You need to get out. The fire’s 2 miles away and moving at 2 mph,’ ” Adams said. “Well, thankfully, it didn’t move 2 mph or else our house would have burned up an hour later.”
Now, the family has joined the thousands of people evacuated from their homes since the fire broke out Sept. 13, people who have had to scramble for housing in shelters, hotels or with friends.
Dennis Mathisen, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said that as of Monday morning, 2,819 people had been evacuated since the fire began. Some have been allowed to return, while others have had to endure the endless waiting for firefighters to gain an upper hand on the 87,592-acre blaze.
So far, 10 homes and 22 minor structures have been consumed by the blaze, which authorities last week blamed on a suspected arsonist. Another 12,000 homes and 9,000 smaller buildings remain threatened by the fire, which was 18 percent contained Monday.
Although many residents sought refuge in American Red Cross shelters immediately after the fire began, most have found other places to stay. Only 10 people spent Sunday night at the sole remaining shelter at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Camino, shelter manager Henri Santos-Coy said Monday, as a handful of people wandered in for lunch or sat talking in the parking lot.
Adams and his wife, as well as their 5-year-old Catahoula Leopard dog, Huck, have been living in a small motor home they have parked on some friends’ property and have discovered a new sense of community with their Swansboro neighbors as they post daily updates of news and photos of the neighborhood onto Facebook and the Nextdoor website that allows neighbors to communicate with each other.
“Every day, I go to vantage points that I know about and take pictures across the canyon, put them on the Nextdoor neighbor website and on Facebook for people who’ve had to evacuate but aren’t in the nearby area so they can see that the community’s there,” Fred Adams said. “And so that gives them courage. They can see that, yes, the smoke is billowing up, but it still hasn’t reached the community.”
The couple say the experience has been “an adventure” but that they are ready to get back to their lives. Fred Adams, who uses a wheelchair because of a construction accident years ago, must wrestle with the confined quarters of his motor home, where he has to be lifted in and out. He and his wife are planning to move to a friend’s house that is empty until they can return home.
Offers of help are pouring in from every imaginable quarter. At the Red Cross shelter, a note posted on the bulletin board contains phone numbers of people offering to take in people who need housing or help with animals ranging from chickens to horses.
Placerville resident Stacie Zakskorn and friends created a Facebook page, “El Dorado County fire evacuees emergency housing,” that is coordinating efforts for people in need. So far, she said about half a dozen horses have been put up by Julie Vance, owner of the Sundance Springs Ranch. Four firefighters from Flagstaff, Ariz., who couldn’t find motel rooms are lodging in a travel trailer offered by Julie Hagen, who overheard them talking in a grocery store parking lot, Zakskorn said.
Other residents simply turned to family in the area and are trying to make the best of things.
Rick Ocanas, his wife, Wani, and their three small children showed up at the Camino shelter to grab lunch Monday, which included turkey sandwiches, fresh vegetables and chips. They said they feel lucky because they can stay with their older daughter in Camino.
Ocanas, a 42-year-old Swansboro resident who works in real estate, said his wife had taken the children to school when the mandatory evacuation order came last Tuesday.
They had gotten word the night before that an evacuation was possible and started packing little things, they said, but when the order came down their packing strategy changed.
“We dumped drawers and that’s it,” Wani Ocanas said. “We grabbed the washing machine stuff, the dirty clothes, the shoe bucket and whatever. It was grab whatever you can and that’s it.”
The children – 8-year-old Mia, 5-year-old Lulu and 2-year-old Silas –were at school and spared the fright of having to flee or spend a night on a cot in a shelter.
On Sunday, the family was escorted back to their neighborhood briefly to grab some items and check on their house.
“We were able to go back yesterday for 10 minutes, and we took them with us,” Rick Ocanas said. “And they were able to go in their bedrooms and get the toys that they wanted. So they were happy about that.”
Nearly 7,000 firefighters have been brought in from around the nation to combat the fire, and they made progress over the weekend as cooler weather settled in. But temperatures rose slightly Monday and some winds picked up in the afternoon as a massive smoke plume blossomed behind a hilltop to the left of the Swansboro area.
With no access to the fire zone, area residents are left to find viewing spots to see where the fire is moving. On Monday, some gathered above a dam swapping rumors, while Adams and his wife tried that spot as well as Wofford Acres, where owner Ann Wofford showed off a large pink and yellow chalk sign on the parking lot that read, “Thank you Mary and fire crews.” The note was aimed at an area resident, Mary Verry, who flies overhead as a fire spotter, Wofford said.
A handful of people stopped by for wine tasting, and Adams’ parents pulled up just before Fred and Diana Adams arrived for their daily routine.
Fred Adams is the driver, piloting their van to the best viewing spots, and Diana Adams take the photos to post online.
They were pleased that they could still see their home Monday, but worried about the family cat they could not catch last Tuesday and whether they left enough water behind for it.
They said they take great pains every year to ensure they have enough defensible space around the house. But both know that in a fire this large there are no guarantees, and they watched closely as the smoke plume expanded suddenly.
“I hope that smoke’s from the backburns,” Fred Adams said.