When the Sheep Fire hit, a group of local residents came to the rescue
The people of Lassen County enjoy a justly earned reputation for helping each other and pulling tightly together in times of need. And now the new Lassen County Fires Community Concerns and Information group (you can find them on Facebook) has raised that already high bar several more notches.
“We’re just helping people who can’t help themselves, said group organizer Johnnie Taylor, Jr. “A lot of the houses we went to had disabled or elderly residents. That’s mainly the people we helped out — the people who couldn’t do it themselves.”
But as they say, one thing leads to another.
“It just started as me trying to put something together to help people out, and it kind of got out of hand,” Taylor quipped. “I wasn’t expecting any of this here.”
Anyone interested in joining the group should visit the Facebook page.
Taylor said he started the group during the Hog Fire that blackened nearly 10,000 acres and threatened Lake Forest in July and August. The idea at that time was to gather as much up-to-the-minute information as possible and get it out to the public.
Then came the Sheep Fire. Taylor said the group immediately started posting as much information as they could on the new fire threatening both Susanville and Janesville and many homes in between.
“When the Hog Fire had pretty much died out, I changed the name of the group to Lassen County Fires, Community Concerns and Information,” Taylor said. “A couple of weeks later, the Sheep Fire started. When we found out there were only 119 or so firefighters fighting the fire and they were only doing structure protection, and they weren’t cutting lines because they didn’t have enough people,” Taylor gathered a group to “go cut lines, to do something. I didn’t want to just sit around and do nothing. A bunch of people supported me. A bunch of people wanted to do it with me, but shortly I found out they wouldn’t let us do that due to liability issues.”
OK, going into the burning woods and cutting fire lines won’t work, then someone suggested the group could go do structure protection around threatened homes before the firefighters get there. Taylor said the group would do the same kind of clearing work to create a defensible space around a residence that the firefighters would do when they arrived.
“We got a small group together on Friday, and our first house ended up getting a mandatory evacuation order before we got there. I called her (the resident) and told her I was sorry because we weren’t able to make it. Then someone said, ‘Let’s see if we can get through the road block.’ So we went, talked to the sheriffs, and they let us through. We got up to the house and immediately we started moving propane tanks, gas cans up against the house, wood — anything that was flammable up against the house as best we could. Then we went checking on other houses to see if we could help them out. Then the sheriffs escorted us out.”
The next day they got another call about another house, “and it just started becoming a thing,” Taylor said. “We basically just created a defensible space around the houses.”
Taylor said he lost count of how many homes they helped protect, but he guessed there were at least a dozen.
Several local residents say the website — which posted information from a number of different websites (including lassennews.com) — was probably the most complete and up-to-the-minute source of information during the fire. Taylor said two group members worked on posting the information to the groups Facebook page.
Believe it or not, the group found refuge for more than 150 animals — dogs, cats, chickens, birds, horses, goats, pigs, just about everything but cows — during the fire. One animal rescue opened its land as did many local ranchers and farmers and local homeowners (for the dogs and cats). The new Game Zone on Main Street took in the birds. Many residents donated their trucks and trailers to help the group as well.
“The community really helped,” Taylor said.
“We had a lot of good people around us,” another member said. “There were quite a few community members who backed us, supported us and helped us any way they could.”
While working on homes in Janesville, they asked everyone if they knew someone who needed help, and someone mentioned an 85-year-old woman neighbor. She had a horse and dogs and cats and birds.
Everyone in the group is a volunteer and no one gets paid, although they do accept donations that are used for expenses such as gas and food. The group got more donations than they needed, so they donated some of the extra money to Cowboy 911, an national nonprofit organization that works during disasters around the world and rescues animals “during fires, hurricanes and tornados. You name it, and they’ll go rescue it.”
Cowboy 911 also helped with the local effort, for example, donating feed for some of the rescued animals. They helped rescue some animals on their own, too. So the group notes the effort to help the community in a time of need was much bigger than just them.
Hooves and Angels, Inc. also lent a hand with the animal rescues, but the group said there are many individuals who helped with the effort who deserve recognition, but they don’t know who they are.
The members say most of them did not know each other before joining the group and Taylor put out the word about the need and the members responded.
“There were people helping all over that mountain,” one member said.
“I just thought, ‘I need to do something,’” Taylor said. “I never expected it would turn out this way. I just want to go help. I wasn’t expecting donations or anything like that, but they came at just the right time when everyone was starting to run out of gas and money, and we weren’t sure we were going to be able to keep doing it. The donations started pouring in, and that kept us going. Then people were coming out to donate to feed us. Safeway did breakfast, the Weenie Wagon did lunch, Merry Morsels donated coffee and someone bought us Burger King for lunch. A couple of homeowners bought us pizza and some gave us drinks and water.”
“One night when we were on the railroad tracks (near Diane Drive), the fire was everywhere all the way around us,” one member said. “You never know how fast those fires are going to come.”
Taylor talked about an experienced firefighter cousin who lost his life in the Carr Fire.
“You never can tell what a fire’s going to do,” Taylor said. “Someone as experienced as he was got caught in a fire tornado. It’s better to evacuate early rather than waiting until the last minute when you’re running for your life. There were pieces of charcoal coming down on the places we were, and they were hot. I had branches fall near me, and they were still hot.”
And even though the Sheep Fire is just about out, the group plans to go back to the houses they helped clear and help them dispose of the flammable objects and burn piles they created.
“We haven’t quite figured out the details of that yet, and what we have to do,” Taylor said. “I’m not sure when we’re going to be able to go back and do that, but that’s what our plan is.”
Other future plans include possibly becoming a nonprofit organization.
“Who knows? Depending upon how it goes, if we get enough people, we could maybe start groups like this in other counties,” Taylor said. “Maybe we could do what Cowboy 911 does and go nationwide. They rescue animals, but it would be kind of cool to have a foundation that helps people save their homes. We want to save animals and people, too.”
“It’s a good feeling helping people,” one group member said.