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Firefighters who were battling Saturday to save the Big Creek Elementary School and other structures in the tiny Sierra community told Big Creek superintendent/principal Toby Wait that fire was coming at them “from four directions.”

But firefighters were determined to keep Big Creek School from being devoured by the Creek Fire, which rapidly spread in mountainous terrain in Fresno and Madera counties over the Labor Day weekend.

Wait, who evacuated to safety early Saturday morning with his wife, three of their four children, and their pets, said he learned later that one of the firefighters from a Bakersfield unit assigned to battle the Creek Fire is the son of his former administrative assistant at Hoover High School in Fresno. The unit’s captain learned of the family connection to Big Creek School, which caught fire Saturday night.

“You tell Toby we’re going to save this place. We’re not losing that school; for Toby, we’re going to save it,” the unnamed captain reportedly said.

Photo of Big Creek, California, on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, after the Creek Fire.S

The scene in Big Creek on Sunday morning. (Facebook/Brian Bailey)

Big Creek Elementary Still Stands

The school is still standing, as is the church, the post office, the general store, and the fire station, Wait said Monday afternoon.

But dozens of houses — including his own — were destroyed when flames overtook the town.

The Wait family had time to pack up photos and other valuables before heading out at 4:30 a.m. Saturday. Even then, Wait said, he expected the fire danger would be over soon and he’d be back home in time to barbecue on Sunday, and he kicks himself a little that he and family members didn’t throw more clothes in their cars: “I just never thought it would get to this point.”

Unlike the people of Paradise in Northern California who had little warning in 2018 that a wildfire would engulf them, Big Creek had more time to prepare. Wait said he saw the initial firefighting efforts Friday afternoon that appeared to “box in” the wildfire that had broken out. But an ember blew out of the containment and ignited the parched, overgrown forest.

Fresno County Supervisor Buddy Mendes told GV Wire℠ that the original fire of about 10 acres was knocked down to a little more than an acre before winds fanned its explosive growth.

Wait and others knew that the prevailing winds, which were holding the fire down canyon Friday evening, would shift — those same winds are why Huntington Lake is so good for sailing, he said — and the fire would start moving up canyon toward Big Creek. So they had time to gather some belongings before getting the evacuation alert.

Evacuation Route Goes Uphill

A caravan of 50 or 60 cars headed out of Big Creek in the darkness, driving uphill on Huntington Lake road toward the lake. The stretch of roadway, known locally as “Beaver Slide” because of a 2019 landslide, is narrow and on the side of a steep cliff, with twisty hairpin turns, Even in daylight hours, it’s not an easy drive.

Wait, who was driving the family pickup, said he was nervous that they would be met on the narrow road by large firefighting vehicles heading downhill from Huntington Lake. He also was more worried about 16-year-old daughter Mackenzie driving the family Subaru up Beaver Slide for the first time in her life than he was about the fire coming after them, “and she did an incredible job.”

Although the Creek Fire destroyed some 30 houses in Big Creek — including four of the six houses that are home to some of the school’s staff — everyone made it out alive, Wait said.

Big Creek, which has a population of about 188, is a work community for Southern California Edison’s massive hydroelectric project in the Sierra. Wait said he heard that the utility company is providing housing in the Fresno area for the workers and their families who were displaced by the fire.

Photo of the Creek Fire

A member of the Laguna Hotshots, out of the Cleveland National Forest, monitors flames caused by the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Big Creek. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Coming Back to School

But as to when they will able to return to their school in Big Creek, time will tell, Wait said.

Like most schools in Fresno County, Big Creek had started the school year with distance learning because of the coronavirus pandemic. Because of its small size — enrollment is around 56 students — its remote location, and the community’s lack of COVID-19 cases, Wait had been lobbying for weeks to get Fresno County Public Health Department officials to submit a waiver request for Big Creek to open for classes.

He said he’d learned late last week that county health officials had finally submitted the waiver request to the state Department of Public Health.

“How hard we’ve fought to get the green light, but now there are no kids (in Big Creek) to bring back to the school,” Wait said.

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