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Clover Fire Survivors Share Stories of Escape

IGO, Calif.—As residents left homeless by the Clover Fire sift through rubble, tales of narrow escapes and altruistic neighbors continue to emerge from a community rallying to absorb and rebuild. 

The 8,073-acre blaze, which scorched about 11 square miles of woodland hills south of Igo in southwestern Shasta County, prompted the evacuation of at least 300 people when it raced through the area Monday, Cal Fire information officers estimated.

Some of them were allowed to return home Thursday and Friday as officials reopened Clear Creek, Cloverdale, Lower Gas Point and Gas Point roads.

But others, like Frank and Kaye Griffith, who live on Small Farms Drive, had to wait until Saturday morning, when residents of the area that received most of the fire damage were allowed back in. 

The Griffiths, who stayed in a friend’s fifth-wheel trailer, said they were among the lucky ones who still had a home to return to. They credit fire retardant dropped by an air tanker, brush-clearing they’d done around the house, and the bravery of two brothers who stayed on their property, watering the buildings, even after the Griffiths had fled.

“It all happened really quick,” said Kaye, 76. “I had the (public safety) scanner going, and I was smelling smoke. We knew it was coming our way because of the wind.”

Kaye and Frank Griffith of Igo

The Griffiths, who spent time Friday catching up with neighbors at the evacuation center at Igo Community Church, have lived in their home for 36 years.

“I had a few things in bags already,” Kaye said, “but I forgot a lot of other things. We had about 10 minutes to get out.”

She did remember to grab medications for Frank, 77, who is disabled.

“I’d be at the VA clinic otherwise,” he said.

While the Griffiths shared their story, the brothers who helped them escape stopped by the center. David and Richard Oldbury have lived in the area about 15 years and said they are no strangers to fire danger. Richard fought fires in the National Guard, and their father served in the Central Valley Fire Department for more than a decade.

Their home did not burn, but they had a first-hand look at the flames nearby. “We could see all the houses around us burning out,” David, 57, said.

“It came too quick. People didn’t have a chance,” Richard, 54, said.

David and Richard Oldbury of Igo

When the Griffiths called, they didn’t hesitate, and drove the 6 miles in record time, Kaye Griffith said.

“It was coming right up there like a freight train,” Richard Oldbury said. At one point, he said, he and his brother were forced to crawl under their Jeep Cherokee while flames passed by. Both of them pointed to singed hair on their arms.

“What were we doing? Praying,” he said. “That’s the only thing you can do. Hope the devil won’t hit us.”

The brothers were on the move Friday with a vehicle full of equipment, ready to help out where they could. “We’re jacks-of-all-trades,” Richard said.

Igo Store

A short distance up the road from the church is the Igo Store, a community landmark and logical gathering place for people, donations and information.

April Gollardo has worked at the store for about a year-and-a-half and lived in Igo for five years. “The first two days were utter chaos,” she said. “I stood on the porch and could see flames 150 feet high. I bailed and ran home.”

She and store owner Tom Schlenker said the community has pulled together, a characteristic typical of the rural area.

“I love this community,” said Schlenker who has owned the store for almost 10 years. “They may bitch and moan, but they all pitch in and help in hard times.”

Tom Schlenker, owner of the Igo Store

Neither Schlenker nor Gollardo suffered property damage, but Gollardo said she’s been impacted by people she knows who have lost homes. “It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “Family homes they’ve had for years. There are widows who lost husbands and now have lost their homes.”

She pointed to a puppy on the back deck, rolling on his back in the sunshine. “Somebody found him and brought him in,” she said. “I’ve named him Clover.”

Sisters

Dressed in blue nursing scrubs and clogs, area resident Kim Sellers stopped by a burned-out home on Cloverdale Road on Friday afternoon. She was joined by her sister, Chris McCandless of Redding.

Kim Sellers of Igo, left, and her sister, Chris McCandless of Redding

“This was such a beautiful home,” Sellers said. “We looked at this one when we moved here.”

Sellers pointed across a blackened canyon to a light-colored house still standing. That’s where she spent some frantic, nightmarish minutes on Monday, she said.

Sellers was getting ready to leave for a 2 p.m. workshift that day when she looked out the kitchen window of her Clover Lane home and saw smoke. “Oh, another fire,” she thought without much concern, and started driving. But she saw flames at the second corner and turned back.

She knew a friend’s father lived alone on nearby Clover View with a donkey, mule and dogs. She drove there to help. By that time, fire was moving up the ridge behind the house. They stood on the back porch, hosing the flames and watched in horror as another friend’s house burned.

“He told me, ‘Honey, you gotta leave,’” Sellers said. “But he wasn’t going to leave without his mule and donkey. I called my sister and said, ‘You’ve got to help me.’”

But McCandless and Sellers’ husband reached a road closure and weren’t allowed in to the area. Cell phone service was sporadic.

“It was terrifying,” McCandless said. “We didn’t know if she would make it.”

Sellers said her friend’s father asked her to take his dogs and leave. Only one got in the car. “By this time, flames were a few feet away,” she said, pausing. “I thought this was the day the Lord was going to take me home.”

A California Highway Patrol officer drove in and said they needed to get out. Sellers explained that the homeowner wouldn’t leave without his animals, and the officer said she would help him. Sellers said she drove to her house, stopping to tell an engine driver about the man.

She struggled with leaving but said the man’s son, who came to her house, tried to comfort her.

A bulldozer was able to get to the house and cut a line around it, which Sellers credits with saving the home.

She was able to drive through the smoke and find her husband and sister. They were allowed to go back in to retrieve more belongings from Sellers’ home, which also survived the blaze.

McCandless mentioned that firefighters knocked on her sister’s door Friday, immediately prompting more fears. “But they said, ‘Is there anything we can do for you?’” she said. “These firefighters have been amazing.”

Crews and Cal Fire

Utility and road crews, as well as tree fellers, swarmed the area in the aftermath to clear debris, rebuild road barriers, install power poles and reenergize lines, said Cal Fire information officer Roy Del Carlo.

Crews work Friday to restore power in areas impacted by the Clover Fire.

Their fast pace allowed for an earlier opening of Gas Point and Lower Gas Point roads, though side roads (such as Small Farms, Marsha Way, and Coal Pit, among others) remained closed until Saturday due to hazards, said Cal Fire information officer Cris Rohn Hartman.

All roads were reopened to the public by Saturday night, and officials reported the fire fully contained on Sunday morning. 

Cal Fire, which staffed its fire information center 24 hours a day from Monday through midnight Friday, received calls from absentee homeowners, as well as people on vacation who were on their way back, Del Carlo said. The officers could not provide details about each property, just descriptions about the origin of the fire and where the hottest part was, he said. 

“I’m sure those people are going to be surprised,” he said Friday. “It moonscaped that area pretty good.”

Blackened landscape along Cloverdale Road

The Clover Fire destroyed almost 200 buildings, 68 of them homes. Six people were injured and one man, Brian Stanley Henry, 55, of Igo, died in the blaze.

The cause of the blaze, which began around 12:20 p.m. Monday near Clear Creek and Cloverdale roads, remains under investigation.

Cal Fire’s Del Carlo said Friday he anticipated residents might be waiting early Saturday for the remaining roads to open.

“I think you’ll find it will be a very emotional time for people going in,” he said.

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Photos by Candace L. Brown

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Photos by Leon Nelson

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Photos by Bruce Lutz

Candace L. Brown has been a newspaper and magazine reporter and editor for 20 years. She lives in Redding and can be reached at candace.freelance@gmail.com.