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Surviving the fires: One family’s story of how they avoided disaster twice

Rough and Ready’s Bill Avery has learned a lot from fighting off two destructive wildfires from his home, the 49er Fire, and most recently the Lobo Fire.

The two-story home he and his family built on Highgrader Road withstood the flames of the 33,700 acre 49er Fire, which burned 312 structures in September 1988.

A fire chief had come by his home before the fire reached there.

“’You know you were supposed to leave’,” Avery recalled the chief telling him. “’But you look pretty good with your defensible space.’ He said, ‘Close up your windows, it’s going to sound like a freight train going through. Then, you come out and put out every ember that’s burning.’”

He followed those instructions given to him in 1988, and Avery saved his home.

While Avery knows that the decision to stay and protect your property during a wildfire isn’t something everyone should do or anything he recommends, he points to the good defensible space, the resources available to fight the fire, and an escape plan at the ready to help back up his decision.

“People count on the fire department and they can’t do it all, they can’t help everybody,” Avery said. “What I’m saying, and I know it’s totally wrong, but if you’re prepared, and have an escape route, stay and fight.”

Early morning emergency

So when Avery woke around 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 9, 2017, and discovered a wildfire was headed his way, he and his family knew what to do. By the end of the day they had saved their home from wildfire again, as well as those of neighboring family members.

“The first thing I remember, I smelled smoke,” Avery said. “I came downstairs, I thought it was my wife Nancy’s sage. I take Nancy’s sage off of the stove and placed it outside and thought we gotta stop burning the damn rice fields.”

“That’s when I ran up and said, ‘Nancy we’re in trouble, there’s embers all over.’”

Avery noticed the leaves of the oaks were burning out of the trees.

“Everything was on fire. I told Nancy to call Loren, my son.”

Loren lives next door on his father’s property in a cabin they built.

“He thought the swamp cooler had caught on fire,” Avery said. “He comes walking out, he can see the whole yard is on fire.”

Avery proceeded to tune to the local radio stations for information on the fire but couldn’t get any news.

It doesn’t get easier

Then the power went out.

“Fortunately I had my dad’s tractor,” Avery said. “I grabbed that tractor, I ran up to the cabin and put water on the cabin because it started to burn on one side, my son was able to throw dirt on another side.”

When the power went out, so did the ability to pump water from the well on the Avery’s property, so he attempted to pump water from his pond that had just been refilled a few weeks prior.

“I decided that I could take my generator, turn the main breaker off, and reconnect the wires going to the irrigation pump,” Avery said. “I couldn’t get those wires hooked up I was shaking so bad.

“That’s the time my nephew Joe came over, he looked at my shop and said, ‘Uncle bill, your shop is going to burn down.’”

“What do you want? Cause I know you want everything in there,” Avery said to his nephew.

He took Avery’s dune buggy.

About that time is when the first Cal Fire engine came up their driveway, informing them that they had to evacuate.

“I’m not leaving, you cannot make me leave,” Avery said.

Avery said the firefighters warned him he’d be breathing a lot of toxic stuff, but Avery stood fast.

Water without power

“Everything just kept burning until I got this other old pump that I took down to the pond. It had a good suction,” Avery said.

Using the old pump to fill water tanks and extra hose that was left on his property from the 49er Fire, Avery and his family were able to save their home and workshop from fire.

He lost many classic vehicles, including two bay window Volkswagen buses.

“If we would have left, the cabin and the shop wouldn’t be here.”

Neighboring heroes

Avery noted that many of his neighbors weren’t as fortunate, but described their willingness to help other neighbors survive.

“The guy that was driving up and down honking his horn waking people up, I think he’s a total hero,” Avery said.

“He knocked and knocked and knocked at one home. She would have burned up, she had her hearing aids off,” Avery said of one elderly woman saved by neighbors.

While the winds picked up on the anniversary of the Lobo Fire Sunday night, Avery and his wife thought back to a year ago and everything it took to save what they could of their property.

While Avery doesn’t recommend staying back to fight fires, he stands by his actions that day.

His family’s homes are still standing today because of it.

To contact Multimedia Reporter Elias Funez, email, efunez@theunion.com, or call 530-477-4230.

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