On July 22, the Oak Fire began in Midpines, California, 37 miles from Yosemite Valley. At the time of publication, 18,532 acres and 41 homes and buildings have been destroyed. This is the story of a resident of Mariposa who lost his house in the fire.
On Friday, July 22, I had just returned home from planning an e-bike ride with a family of six — leading bike rides is my side gig — when I noticed smoke nearby. My home is on Triangle Road next to Butterfly Creek Winery in Mariposa, CA, just 40 miles from Yosemite National Park. I called Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada foothills home for 30 years. These are my favorite places in the world.
The flames were visible from my front yard, beyond Carter Road, which climbs Buckingham Mountain, near where we were driving. The fire seemed to be growing rapidly, but it was also far enough away that it didn’t seem threatening.
Worried but not too alarmed, the family and I piled into our van and headed to Midpines for a closer look. Roaring flames paralleled Highway 140 and thick smoke billowed into the sky. Times were in the 90s and a breeze was blowing. Passing the Midpines Country Store we decided to turn around as I was worried the road would close and we didn’t want to get stuck.
Once we backed up, the severity of the fire increased. The flames were bigger now, the fire more intense. We agreed that we had to evacuate my house as soon as possible and get everything to safety.
Phone reception is non-existent in the Sierra foothills, so instead of heading back to Triangle, we drove into town so I could call for help. Fire trucks were speeding down the highway. The sky was orange. I called everyone I could think of, including my friend and Stone Nudes photographer Dean Fidelman from Yosemite West. He tried to come with his van to pick up my electric bikes, but a closed road stopped him. I also called Josh Holmes and his son Jax in nearby Nipinnawasee, who immediately got into their car and drove to my house.
We went home and everyone grabbed what they could. Josh and Jax were carrying boxes of books, climbing gear and technical clothing. A lot of my stuff was stored in trash cans and big carrier bags, so it didn’t take long to fill up my SUV and Josh’s van. I didn’t bother to unplug the power cables from the wall; I didn’t care which of my many bikes went on the rack; I assumed I would be back to move more speed. Looking towards my front yard fire, I thought, “This is going to burn my house down tomorrow.”
I loaded my 100-pound boxer, Fenster, into the front seat, rolled down the windows since the air conditioning was off, and we drove quickly to Paul and Julia Wignall, owners of Skydive Yosemite, on Mount Bullion , about 21 miles. Due to closed road detours, it took over 40 minutes to get there. I unloaded, got Fenster back in the car and prepared to put as much stuff in my vehicle as I could in the next race.
I felt like I was peering into the gates of Hell.
New roadblocks prevented me from returning. I took the way back until a single crossroads to be stopped. “The fire shoots flames a mile or more down the road,” an officer told me. ‘Someone was almost pulled out of a high speed emergency response vehicle,’ another said.
Running out of options, my attention turned to Fenster and making sure it didn’t overheat. (Boxers have small, short noses, which makes them prone to heatstroke.) I tried three bars and restaurants, but two were closed due to fire; the third, the Grove House, was open, so we left. I hadn’t had the time or the foresight to pack his leashes, so I made one by ripping a Fourth of July ribbon from a pole on Main Street and tying it to his collar.
Soon the pub was full and everyone was talking about the fire. CAL FIRE described it as “extreme with frequent runs, spot fires and group fires”. As I write this on July 26, it’s 16,000 acres and it’s now California’s biggest wildfire of the year.
“Your house is gone,” everyone told me. I had no reason to doubt them.
The news – the loss of my home – did not faze me. I had already spent the week in and out of the hospital, and I was panicking because clumps of hair suddenly started falling out of my head. A visit to the family doctor one day turned into an emergency room the next.
The doctor told me I had alopecia, and he didn’t know why. His choice of language (“chronic illness”) and my rapidly deteriorating condition made me think I might die. Anyway, I was battling an autoimmune disease for some unknown reason. This condition will dramatically change my appearance, too. The hair is falling off my head and may never grow back. If so, it comes back white and wispy. I can’t grow a beard and I’m afraid my eyebrows and eyelashes are next. I cried in the ER, bawled alone in my house, and cried on the shoulder of my landlord, Dale. I cried, sobbing like I was at a funeral. But I was just home alone.
Overwhelmed with thoughts of death and my newly bald head, on July 22, I returned to Mount Bullion and stopped at the summit. There I saw flames devour my old neighborhood. Under the blackness of the night, a burning red lit up the hillsides. I felt like I was peering into the gates of Hell.
Initial reports said the fire charred ten homes, which were later updated to 41. The flames took away every inch of ground I had e-biked on this year. My Strava report says I’ve spent 150 hours since January in this area, covering some 218,000 vertical feet and 1,800 miles in the process. I was absolutely in love with this area, which climbs up to Jerseydale and the Sierra National Forest. You can see Yosemite at one location and directly at El Capitan. Now it’s all gone.