A man with a lakeside home in the Cal-Shasta neighborhood on the south shore of Nacimiento Lake risked his life and ignored evacuation orders to blast hose water at blowing embers and flames Sunday, saving his home and two others from near-certain destruction from the Chimney Fire.
Lewis Wells, 60, recounted his harrowing firefight Tuesday as he coordinated the loan of a generator from a neighbor. The fire burned down some of the homes in the close-knit community, destroyed his water tank and downed electrical lines.
After ignoring a mandatory evacuation that convinced most people in the area to leave, Wells said he saw fire approaching his street, Cliffside Drive, accessible from Running Deer Ranch gate, early Sunday afternoon from over a nearby mountain.
He rushed to make sure hoses at his property and other residences were set up to fight the flames and hooked up a line to a hydrant on the street “at the last minute.”
“I was fighting for everybody,” Wells said. “It wasn’t just my house. If those caught on fire, then the next house would, too.”
As of Tuesday evening, the Chimney Fire had burned 6,900 acres and was 20 percent contained. More than 2,150 personnel are fighting the blaze that has so far destroyed 30 homes and 10 outbuildings and has threatened 232 more homes since Saturday. No injuries have been reported.
Mandatory evacuation orders were still in effect in the communities of Running Deer Ranch, Tri-County, Cal-Shasta, Ranchos del Lago and South Shore Village. Power was out in many areas and PG&E, along with fire officials, was assessing the damage and working to restore service.
I knew that if the thing got out of hand where I couldn’t fight the fire, I had an escape route down to the lake. I was just going to jump in the lake and swim for the other side.
Lewis Wells, Nacimiento Lake-area homeowner
Firefighters on Tuesday were working to keep the flames from spreading to the southwest and east, where rugged terrain could hinder their ability to halt the fire’s advance. But gains were being made as crews battled the blaze by digging firelines and cutting away brush, while overhead, seven air tankers and 13 helicopters dropped retardant and water.
Hot, dry weather was expected to continue for the next several days as fire crews continue the battle against what Cal Fire officials optimistically called “moderate fire behavior.”
“We feel like in the next couple of days, we’ll start to see that containment percentage increase fairly significantly,” said Bud Englund, a public information officer from the Oroville Fire Department, which is assigned to the Chimney Fire.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
I was fighting for everybody. It wasn’t just my house. If those caught on fire, then they next house would too.
Lewis Wells, Nacimiento Lake-area homeowner
One man against the flames
Wells recalled watching as trees on a hillside within feet of his home caught fire Sunday. He quickly sprayed them off and then ran to the next home on Cliffside Drive to suppress flames there, preventing a domino effect.
For three hours, Wells stood his ground, wetting down deck patios and wood frames while dousing pockets of flames sparked by smoldering trees to keep the fire from jumping. Dragging around a 250-foot hose full of water made him intensely sore afterward, he said, but at the time, he was operating on a strong boost of adrenaline.
Wells said he could hear other homes burning, the explosion of propane tanks and loud pops of ammunition firing off from the bullets left behind on neighbors’ scorched properties. From his vantage point, he saw homes across the lake burn down in 30 minutes.
“I knew that if the thing got out of hand where I couldn’t fight the fire, I had an escape route down to the lake,” Wells said. “I was just going to jump in the lake and swim for the other side. It was not like I was ever trapped in the fire.”
Fire officials, however, strongly advise against the kind of actions Wells took, saying it can be deadly to try to stand your ground against an inferno. Residents remaining in fire areas create an extra worry for firefighters.
“Some of us even get nervous coming into a situation like this, and we’re trained in how to fight it,” said Larry Kurtz, a Chimney Fire public information officer whose home base is in Orange County. “But if you have a resident out there, it’s an extra thing to worry about. You want to make sure everybody is out, so you don’t have to worry about people, just the fire.”
Cheryl Pritchard, Wells’ neighbor, said her family’s vacation home, a cabin built by her father in 1962 overlooking a southwestern wing of the lake, was one of the properties that Wells helped save.
It has been an emotional three days for us.
Cheryl Pritchard, Nacimiento Lake-area homeowner
As they do almost every weekend, the Pritchards were planning to spend Sunday at the lake, thinking the fire was far enough away they wouldn’t have to worry about it.
But about 10 a.m. that day, fire officials urged them to evacuate within the hour. The Pritchards grabbed some family keepsakes and drove to their home in Paso Robles.
“I got a call at 5 p.m. from our neighbor, Lew Wells, and he said, ‘I saved your home,’ ” Pritchard said.
The Pritchards then returned to their residence to find trees charred within a few feet of their two-story cabin, and multiple homes within sight of theirs had burned to the foundations.
Down the street, an elevated hillside house remained fully intact, while a neighboring home was reduced to blackened rubble.
“It has been an emotional three days for us,” said Pritchard, who is a Cal-Shasta Club board member along with Wells. “We feel very grateful that our home was saved. But it’s tremendously sad for those who lost their houses.”
Chimney Fire stats
2,149 total personnel
66 hand crews
156 fire engines
7 air tankers
33 water tenders