‘We should have been more prepared’: Thousands evacuate from the River Fire | TheUnion.com

‘We should have been more prepared’: Thousands evacuate from the River Fire

Flames from the River Fire burn through the night near Taylor Crossing and Dog Bar roads Wednesday evening while firefighters worked to build containment lines. By Thursday morning it was reported that 2,400 acres had burned, with no new overnight fire growth.
Photo: Elias Funez

Tom Kidwell nervously eyed the Nevada County evacuation map on his computer Wednesday afternoon, waiting to see if the evacuation warnings for the River Fire would expand to his neighborhood.

“I went online to the community haven website, and we saw that we were still in the white area but the yellow zone was right next to us, so we got prepared,” Kidwell said.

Zones mapped in yellow on the county website are classified as being under an evacuation warning, while zones mapped in red are considered mandatory evacuation areas.

Kidwell, who lives on a farm in east Grass Valley with his wife, his dogs Chase and Snow, and his six cats, said that he began to suspect that the River Fire was approaching his area when a neighbor spotted a huge plume of smoke that was uncomfortably close. Sure enough, Kidwell’s neighborhood fell under the yellow classification later in the afternoon — and he didn’t wait for a second warning.

A Type 1 very large air tanker (VLAT) makes a retardant drop over a flank of the River Fire Wednesday afternoon near Taylor Crossing Road in Nevada County.
Photo: Elias Funez

“We got prepared, the map turned yellow here, we loaded the cats and dogs and we got out of there,” he said. Along with hundreds and eventually thousands of other evacuees, Kidwell made his way to Bear River High School on Magnolia Road, one of the principal evacuation centers in Grass Valley.

While Kidwell and his wife were able to gather all of their most essential items along with their pets, he said he wishes that he had been somewhat more prepared for the situation.

“We should have been a little more prepared…maybe a couple more stash bags for our cats would have been nice, we did have a couple of bags ready but, yeah, I think we should have been more prepared,” he said.

A pair of horses are evacuated along Dog Bar Road from the River Fire, which has burned 2,400 acres in Nevada County as of Wednesday evening.
Photo: Elias Funez

Between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, Kidwell was just one of around 10,000 Nevada County residents either ordered or advised to evacuate as a result of the River Fire, according to the county’s Office of Emergency Services.

In Grass Valley, residents fleeing the fire went primarily to either Bear River High School or another evacuation center at Nevada Union High School, with animals (both pets and livestock) being evacuated to the Nevada County Fairgrounds. Nevada Union High School was later closed as an evacuation center, with residents being redirected to the Bear River High School center.


Yuba and River Roach, siblings and both students at Colfax High School, evacuated with their mom and pets Wednesday afternoon when their neighborhood in Colfax became a part of a code yellow zone, meaning that they were officially under an evacuation warning. While the Roach family was initially separated when the fire began to threaten Colfax, with Yuba and River both being at school while their mom was at home, the family was able to reconvene and make it safely to the Bear River evacuation center.

Highway 174 resident Julie Cilenti was one of many residents who evacuated to Nevada Union High School Tuesday evening due to the River Fire. Her home has survived the fire thus far, so Cilenti can breathe a little easier than some of her neighbors, whose homes did not survive the fire.
Photo: Elias Funez

“I was at the high school when we had to cancel football practice,” River said. One of the football coaches drove River and several of his friends to get them home, with road closures in the area delaying the group.

“Even in our car we watched as the smoke grew in the distance, and we saw the flames from pretty far away already,” River said.

Fortunately, the family was well prepared when their zone received a mandatory evacuation order. When River and Yuba reconvened with their mother later on Wednesday, the family already had “fire lists” of what to take with them in the event of an evacuation, and the siblings said that they were fortunate in being able to bring more belongings with them than many of their neighbors.

“We had a lot of time, we were really lucky,” Yuba said. “…We got to grab a lot of our things, we got to grab our bikes… we had a lot of time and we’re lucky compared to a lot of other people. Some people we know couldn’t even get back to their houses (to evacuate).”

The River Fire quickly burns through light flashy brush and into the ladder fuels before reaching tree canopies in a matter of seconds Tuesday off Dog Bar and Taylor Crossing roads.
Photo: Elias Funez

At the Nevada County Fairgrounds, people rushed to drop off their pets and livestock throughout Wednesday afternoon and into Thursday as well. Horses, goats, sheep, and pigs were among the hundreds of animals taken in by the fairgrounds, with livestock being taken care of in pens and enclosures. Dogs, cats, and other pets often stayed with their owners, some of whom camped out in trailers and vehicles parked on a dirt lot just inside the fairground’s entrance on Brighton Street.

In receiving well over 300 animals on just Wednesday alone, the fairgrounds staff had considerable assistance from several volunteer groups, including the Nevada County Veterinary Disaster Response Team and the county’s animal control evacuations organization, said Patrick Eidman, fairgrounds CEO.

“I really can’t emphasize enough how much of a role they played,” Eidman said of the veterinary response volunteers, many of whom he said worked overtime Wednesday night helping set up amenities for horses and other evacuated livestock. The fairgrounds, which has served as an evacuation point for animals in past fire situations, was well prepared to handle the animals, with many staff and volunteers having previous experience.

The evacuations are not expected to impact the fairgrounds’ ability to hold the annual fair, which is scheduled to begin Wednesday, Eidman said.

The Bear River canyon near Taylor Crossing Road glows after the head of the River Fire passed through this area Tuesday afternoon off Dog Bar Road.
Photo: Elias Funez

Cory Daniels, who lives in Clydesdale near Chicago Park with her husband, said that she’s thankful that the fairgrounds were able to take in the couple’s four dogs. Fairgrounds volunteers ensured that evacuated animals received adequate food, water, and care, Daniels said.

On a more somber note, Daniels said that she feared the couple’s house had likely been destroyed in the fire, as she had later seen pictures of flames near their barn after they had already evacuated. Nonetheless, Daniels took an optimistic view of her circumstances.

“Our house is probably gone…but we were already expecting the worst, I’m just glad we got all of our stuff and had plenty of time…the way I look at it all is we’ve got a clean start,” Daniels added with a chuckle.

Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at swyer@theunion.com

The River Fire quickly burns through light flashy brush and into the ladder fuels before reaching tree canopies in a matter of seconds Tuesday off Dog Bar and Taylor Crossing roads.
Photo: Elias Funez

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