When Evacuating Wildfire, Everything Is At Stake

Sep 9, 2019

Note: Fire officials say mandatory evacuations for Milford area have been lifted, but area residents should be prepared to evacuate if needed. Other mandatory evacuation orders remain intact.

The Walker Fire continues to burn south of Susanville.

It’s charred nearly 44,000 acres and has been 7 percent contained, making it the biggest wildfire in California so far this year.

KUNR’s Bree Zender visited some of those who have been displaced by the evacuation orders to find out how they are adjusting. 

In Milford, California, fear lingers in the air as thick as the smoke. 

It’s a tiny town with less than 200 hundred residents. Like a lot of communities in California, some Milford residents worry they’ll become the next Paradise--where 86 people died last year due to a wildfire.

Most of the town was evacuated over the weekend, including Linda Tindell.

“It looked like a volcano had erupted. It was the most astounding thing I’ve ever seen,” Linda said. “I didn’t sleep at all. I don’t think the dogs did, either.”

Linda has four dogs. And a husband, too. They’re currently camped out in a tent at a relative’s house, because she didn’t think anyone would take all of those dogs in.

“Oh, we have chickens, too. We don’t even know what to do with those,” Linda said. “My husband went and let them go. We had nothing to put them in. We were not prepared for our chickens.”

Larry Friend evacuated in the middle of the night over the weekend.
Credit Bree Zender

Many people who live in this area have acreage, with livestock and other kinds of animals with them. Especially during a quick evacuation, that makes it difficult to find a place to shelter. Some headed to an evacuation center set up at the Lassen County Fairgrounds in Susanville.

That’s where I met Larry Friend. He’s wearing a camo hunting shirt and sports a salt-and-pepper handlebar mustache.

He’s lived in Milford for around 25 years. “I got woke up by four sheriffs telling me I have to leave,” Larry said.

“So I just packed up what I could. Mainly--I’ve got a roommate, she was with me, so I packed up all of her stuff. I forgot mine.”

Larry had to leave so quickly that he didn’t have enough room for his cats and dogs in his car, so he had to leave them behind, and is hoping to return to them when the evacuations are lifted. And now he’s staying in his car… in his little Toyota Corolla. He said he’s just more comfortable sleeping--or staying awake and worrying--there than on somebody’s couch.

“Me… I’m having a rough time because this has been a bad year for me. I lost my wife. And I just retired. So… it’s been so, so. I just take it a day at a time,” Larry said. “She passed away July 25th, 1:30 in the morning.”

The recent loss of his wife has made the threat of losing his home more difficult to bear. To pass the time, Larry’s been keeping himself busy to help with the make-shift evacuee zoo that’s shown up at the fairgrounds. Larry tries to comfort a neighing horse.

“It’s alright, calm down, baby,” he said.

Larry assists Morty the pig in his journey from the truck bed to a nearby pen.
Credit Bree Zender

Larry grew up on a farm, and so taking care of animals comes fairly naturally to him. Some of the animals are anxious. A few of them seem aware of the fire, and most can sense that something is going on, because they’re hastily being packed up and taken some place new.

Other evacuees are having trouble getting a stubborn pot-bellied pig named Morty out of a truck. They’ve been working for 2 hours just to get him into this truck. And now, he’s not coming out. But Larry comes to the rescue.

Morty eventually makes his way off the truck bed and safely into a temporary pen--all in a day’s work.

Nothing about Larry’s life is the same as it was before his wife passed away, but he’s hoping the Walker Fire will spare the bit of normal that he’s got left--his home.

“Is there anything that you left behind… where you’re like ‘dang, I should have gotten it,’ you know?’” I asked.

“Mainly clothes.... and my wife’s urn. So, uh. Yeah. There’s a lot of stuff,” Larry replied.

Containment on the fire has been slow, because of the rough terrain, which is difficult to access, and the amount of trees that serve as fast fuel.

As more than 800 firefighters from multiple states battle the blaze, Larry and other evacuees are left to watch the smoke in the hills from afar.

Larry offers Morty a snack after the pig made it down from the truck.
Credit Bree Zender