As the King fire grew steadily in its first days, residents of the Swansboro neighborhood in the hills above Placerville knew they would soon be forced out as the blaze raced up the steep canyons ringing the area.
By the morning of Sept. 16, the order came and it came fast: Get out in 10 minutes, no exceptions allowed.
Except not everyone left.
While hundreds of residents made their way along the steep, winding roads – in one instance following a route that included a trek over a single-lane wooden bridge leading to safety – a handful in the Swansboro and Mosquito areas decided to ride it out, concluding they should stay in place and try to protect their homes.
“It’s almost surreal,” said Dave Camp, a 51-year-old auto mechanic who stuck it out with his wife, Cathy, for the past week, slowly reducing the amount of food they eat to stretch their supplies until the road between their home and Placerville is reopened.
“Most of the people that are driving by are all either law enforcement, Forest Service or support crews,” Camp said as he stood outside his home Tuesday, his pickup truck packed, parked facing forward and ready to barrel down the hill if the fire burning about a mile away exploded in his direction. “You don’t see your neighbors, you don’t hear dogs.
“We had a friend call from Apple Hill and he said he could see trees going up like matchsticks, and I told him, ‘We don’t really want that visual.’”
So far, the area appears to have been largely spared. A 14-man inmate fire crew was keeping an eye Tuesday afternoon on a backburn that had been set days ago below a ridge upon which a line of rustic mountain homes sits.
Afternoon wind gusts periodically fueled the flames and brought them roaring to life, but firefighting helicopters continued their constant aerial attack on the blaze and the fire line appeared to be holding.
“They’ve done a lot of work,” fire Capt. Mike Boyce said as he watched the crew shoveling into the steaming hot earth. “They were up 30-plus hours the other night.”
The overall firefighting situation has steadily improved since the start of this week, with officials reporting 35 percent containment Tuesday night for a blaze that has blackened 89,574 acres. Up to 12,000 homes are still considered threatened, and 12 have been confirmed as destroyed.
But cooler weather expected later this week is expected to help the 7,388 firefighters battling the blaze, including the inmate crew working to keep the Swansboro area safe.
That crew and an armada of bulldozers digging fire breaks and knocking down trees have helped preserve the isolated neighborhoods here, which are built on a swirl of streets so confusing to outsiders that green “evacuation” signs are posted everywhere with arrows pointing in the direction to flee.
The area consists of a mix of older, modest homes surrounded by forestland and large, new ranches enclosed by crisp white rail fences and river rock entryways. For the past week, each house has been adorned with a yellow tag affixed to the mailbox or gate with duct tape signifying to authorities whether the inhabitants left or, if they stayed, how many were inside.
Some residents left behind notes thanking firefighters or large, spray-painted cardboard signs with important information, such as the fact that a 20,000-gallon pool was in one backyard available for firefighting use or that another home had wooden sides.
Most residents who got out have not been able to return, as California Highway Patrol officers and other law enforcement agencies refuse to allow access until it is safe.
For them, the fate of their homes has come through word-of-mouth or frequent posts on a neighborhood website by a man who stayed behind and has been patrolling the area on his electric bike. Others have found vantage points across the canyon at Apple Hill or other areas where they can catch glimpses of their homes.
But there is certainty only for those who stayed. On Tuesday, The Sacramento Bee found eight residents who were holding out in their homes, although most said they did not want to give their names or be interviewed because they had moved to the area for privacy.
Two men standing on the second-floor balcony of a home that overlooked a large marijuana grow marked with a medical marijuana sign said the first few days had been a whirlwind of smoke, embers and rumors about whether looters were in the area. Another driving down a road complained that he had not been allowed to leave and buy dog food but that the media were permitted inside the area. A third answered his door with a large knife in a scabbard on his belt and declined to talk.
For the Camps, the reality was that they had no better place to go, and they knew if they left they would not be permitted to return.
“We’d like to go get a few groceries, but if we leave we can’t come back,” Dave Camp said. “And we don’t really have any other place to go other than family (members’) houses that are just as smoky.”
Cathy Camp, a hairdresser who works out of the home that doubles as Dave Camp’s auto repair shop, has asthma and was particularly bothered by the smoke on some days.
“This house, we built it in 2003, so it’s got good recirculating air and double pane windows,” he said, noting that they never lost electrical power or water. “It seals as good as we’re going to get. So she comes out and gets fresh air when she can, and we keep the house closed.”
Cathy Camp said they have not gotten much sleep during the blaze.
“We wake up a lot,” she said. “If it’s bad, I would just stay up all night and keep an eye on things.”
Besides, she said, being away from their home wasn’t going to make her nights any easier. “We don’t sleep good here, but we probably wouldn’t sleep at all if we were hours away worrying about the fire,” she said.
The couple said El Dorado County sheriff’s officials warned them they might be on their own if they stayed.
“They said it was pretty much mandatory, but we wanted to stay,” Dave Camp said. “We have chickens and cats, so we wanted to stay and they kind of let us know that, ‘Well, we’ll tell you if something’s coming but we can’t really be responsible for your safety if you stay.’
“We said we understood and that we would be watching and sleeping in shifts so that we could watch for fire, watch for glow on the bottom of clouds and tell how close it is.”
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says the enforcement of evacuation orders is the responsibility of local law enforcement, and El Dorado County sheriff’s Lt. Bryan Golmitz said Tuesday that the department has units patrolling the area to keep empty homes safe but that those who decided to stay do not face arrest.
“If someone refuses, we’re not going to drag them out and handcuff them,” Golmitz said. “That’s their decision to stay.”
At times, the Camps had second thoughts about their decision.
“Oh, all the time,” Dave Camp said. “Two or three times it was glowing so bad and the ash was so bad that we put everything in the truck and got ready to go again,” he said. “We still pretty much have everything in the truck, including the chicken cage, so all we have to do is grab the chickens and the cats.”
For now, though, the couple are grateful that on the Saturday the fire erupted, Sept. 13, they made a large grocery run to a Winco Foods in Sacramento and stocked up just by coincidence.
“We had just gone grocery shopping because it was a weekend,” he said. “We’re fairly well-stocked up. We’re out of bread and we’re out of milk.
“We have plenty of meat and we have fresh tomatoes, but we’re out of fresh vegetables.”
The Camps have run out of canned food for their two cats, and tried substituting ham with their kibble. And their three chickens, which primarily serve as pets, produce eggs for the couple.
But the menus now rely on creativity. Dinner on Monday night was split pea soup and cornbread, Cathy Camp said. “But I used the last of the cornmeal and the last of the peas,” she said. “Now we’re down to the last of everything.”