A wildfire in Rancho Calaveras fueled by moderate winds ravaged a brushy hillside, destroyed three structures and led to an evacuation of a half-dozen nearby homes Monday.
The five-member Autrey family was devastated by its loss and left homeless, but they are all thankful nobody was injured in the blaze.
Vicki Autrey, her two sons Victor, 13, and Dillon, 15, and her sisters, Michele Curtis, 56, and Diane Wagner, 55, lived on the property where the houses burned down. Curtis, the only one home when the fire occurred, gets around using an electric wheelchair and had to be rescued from the house by neighbors and firefighters.
“I just feel our family is blessed,” said Autrey, who owned the house, mother-in-law quarters and garage that burned. “My family and our animals got out safely. I want to put out a big thank you to all the emergency responders, Calaveras Consolidated Fire, San Andreas Fire, Cal Fire, the plane and helicopter pilots, the Sheriff’s Office and the California Highway Patrol.
“This was devastating for me, but without those firefighters the whole neighborhood could have gone up. Our guys are so awesome!”
What sparked the blaze remains under investigation, according to Cal Fire Battalion Chief Nick Casci. It was reported at 12:30 p.m. and burned in a small gulch between Treosti Place and McCauley Road is still under investigation.
Autrey said neighbors saw what looked like a fire pit concealed in the brush near the fire’s origin.
“That’s just speculation,” she said, adding the fire investigators will figure it out.
Neighbors reported seeing huge flames moving “insanely fast” through the brush and grasslands.
“I’ve never seen anything move that fast,” said Jon Carter, 18, a neighbor who was one of the first people on scene. “Before the fire department came, I went over there and about an acre was on fire – it was moving fast. People were screaming for help on the hillside where the house was starting to burn. I ran up there with bare feet to help. It was hectic.”
Carter said he made sure a disabled woman in an electric scooter was being rescued by neighbors and Cal Fire firefighters and then realized he needed to get out of there.
“I ran as fast as I could, and the flames were chasing right after me. I started panicking, because it was so hot the heat was taking all the saliva out of my mouth. I told myself, ‘I’m not going to make it. This fire is going to get to me.’”
Thankfully, Carter did make it to safety and once he was given some water, he began helping a nearby homeowner hose down his house and property.
Multiple drops by Cal Fire fixed-wing aircraft blanketed the area with reddish-orange fire retardant, and two Cal Fire helicopters made numerous water drops, filling up at a nearby pond.
The community was abuzz with activity as neighbors wet down their yards and rooftops while planes and helicopters roared overhead.
Using a mass text and email communication service called Nixle, the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office ordered a mandatory evacuation of homes between Baldwin Street and Bergsma Lane on Treosti Place at about 1:30 p.m. An emergency shelter was set up at the Veterans Hall in Valley Springs. By about 3 p.m., the evacuation order was lifted, as the fire had been contained and the threat mitigated.
While standing next to the smoldering house Monday afternoon, Casci said the fire burned about 5 acres in total after looking at a GPS unit that a firefighter held while walking the blackened area’s perimeter.
On the day of the fire, Autrey was eating lunch at Round Table Pizza when her sister Michelle Curtis called her in distress.
“She called me in panic yelling ‘The house is on fire!’ and then hung up,” Autrey said. “I called back, she answered, and told me she got the dogs and my parrot and is leaving and there is fire all around the house.”
Curtis later told her sister she grabbed the parrot by the feet and it bit her numerous times as she carried it out of the burning house.
“I drove back to the area and saw smoke everywhere,” Autrey continued. “Emergency responders were rushing by, helicopters were pouring down water and airplanes were flying by.”
Autrey was terrified her sister hadn’t made it out, when, to her relief, she saw her sister in a car driven by neighbors.
After catching a glimpse of her house burning, Autrey turned away.
“I didn’t need to watch my world go up on flames,” she said.
After the fire was out, she spent a few minutes walking through the burnt remains of what was once her home.
“When I saw it, it was devastating,” she said. “I was numb. You see that stuff on TV. To have it happen was just unreal.”
But to Autrey’s surprise, she found hope and joy contained in a little box found in the ashes.
“One of the firefighters asked me what was in a green and white box,” she said. “I said ‘Are you kidding?’ It was a box full of family pictures.”
Autrey also recovered a variety of valuables and important documents from her fire and gun safes. Another drawer that escaped the flams contained her children’s baby books.
“The first thing I cared about was getting my sister out of there,” she said. “The blessing on top of that is I have my most important things. Unfortunately, my sister lost everything – I mean everything.”
The community stepped up in a big way to support the family.
A fundraiser held the night of the fire raised more than $1,100 in cash and gift cards, according to Sarah McCormick Manning of Valley Springs. Two truckloads of clothes, toiletries and food were also delivered to the Autrey family that night.
“Thank you to everyone who came out to donate to the Autrey family tonight,” McCormick Manning said. “We have a wonderful community!”
Autrey said the Red Cross provided her family with a comfortable place to stay and money for food and clothing.
“The community has been awesome,” she enthused.
Donations for the Autrey family are being accepted at Calaveras High School, Toyon Middle School and Jenny Lind Elementary. People can also donate at Umpqua Bank by making checks out to Vicki Autrey, account No. 992933952. The Pizza Factory is planning another fundraiser for the family from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday, June 14. A percentage of all sales will go to the Autrey family.
“Our community has been so wonderful and supportive,” Autrey said. “I’m used to being on the other side – helping with things like this. It’s overwhelming to be on the receiving end. We are blessed.”