NORTH FORK – A family who had no doubt that they had lost everything to the flames during the first night of the Corrine Fire were shocked and thrilled to discover that their homes were still standing.
“We watched the fire coming over the hill and surrounding our house, and I just knew it was all up in smoke,” says Jeff Mowery who lives with his fiancé, Regina McGraw, on his family’s 130 acre property on Road 222.
On Thursday, June 18, just after 9 p.m., the power went out. Jeff was at his home alone, which is right next to his brother Mike and girlfriend Pia, when they became aware of the fire that was burning just a few thousand feet to the east of them.
“The wind was blowing towards us, and the noise it made was pretty horrendous,” says Jeff, who was taking video of the fire as it approached.
“Everybody in my family was headed down the driveway and across the road to a big pullout over there. They’re yelling, ‘Where’s Jeff, how come he’s not over here yet!’ and I’m sitting here procrastinating, grabbing things that don’t really matter. But they were sentimental things.”
Jeff noticed as he was packing things up, that when his dog Really came back into the house, he was covered with ash. Now things were getting serious.
Regina had just returned from Fresno, and they hurried to get Really and their two cats – Big Boy and Fluffy – into the car, and rushed to join the family.
Jeff’s uncle lives just up the driveway from him in a cream-colored house that can be seen from Road 222, perched atop the hill. The now-refugees all gathered across the road, and watched the fire come, and waited for the fire engines to come and save their homes. They waited until 2 a.m. he says, but no one came.
“We saw fire trucks, but they just drove right by,” says Jeff, who at some point relocated with Regina to a pullout farther up the road to get a better view of the flames.
While they were sitting there watching the fire bear down on them, Jeff says he heard a gunshot.
“I knew I was the only one who had left a gun behind, right there in the kitchen,” says Jeff. “So I thought, if the gun went off, then the house went off.”
As they all watched the approaching firestorm, Jeff knew that his aunt, his uncle, and the rest of his family were reliving a tragedy from over a half-century ago when his mother’s older sister, Peggy Polkenhorn, and the baby she had just given birth to, both perished in a fire just a few hundred feet from the house he had just evacuated.
“I think a lantern got knocked over and started the house on fire,” Jeff remembers as he talks about a newspaper clipping he found in the house not long ago. “I saw the clipping on the kitchen table last year. That’s how I found out. Peggy’s husband Manuel Jefferson was at the movies in North Fork when it happened.”
Jeff says his Mom has always “freaked out” whenever he lit off a burn pile.
“She’d say, ‘Hey what are you burning out there? Just stop, just put it out, don’t be burning anything!’ I bought some tiki torches, and she wouldn’t let me use them, and I always wondered why.”
The family history and the tragedy of two deaths in another fire is fresh in his mind.
“That house was my grandmothers, and my mother inherited it,” says Jeff. “There used to be a school house right here. My mother, my uncles and aunts – they were all born right here in that schoolhouse.”
Jeff thinks of how it must have been for his family on this night, watching the Corrine Fire racing over the hill.
“When I was out there with my aunt and uncle – just watching them watch the fire and thinking what was going through their minds – flashing back about Peggy – I know it was just real emotional for them.”
Just after two o’clock, a sheriff’s deputy came and told them they would have to leave, so they headed for the Red Cross shelter at the Oakhurst Community Center with two cats and a dog in tow.
Jeff’s dog Really didn’t take too well to being confined to a cage at the shelter, and made quite a scene, so they were forced to put him back in the pickup, and everyone slept in the truck in the parking lot.
Jeff’s Isuzu Rodeo was in the shop at Hank’s Automotive in North Fork due to an overheating problem, so they had left home in his mom’s extended cab pickup. Quarters were cramped, to say the least, so they returned to North Fork the next day to retrieve the overheating Isuzu.
“I left North Fork, and by the time I got to Goat Mountain it was overheating, so I’d have to pull over and wait for it to cool off, and try to keep the dog from running out of water.”
The Isuzu had more space, but no air conditioning. The pickup had air conditioning, but no space. So they worked with both, and finally ended up at the Evangelical Free Church Red Cross shelter near Yosemite High School.
“Having to sleep in the parking lot with no shade wasn’t too much fun,” says Jeff. “They had a shelter for animals, but mine wouldn’t behave, so we had to sleep in the car. And one of the cats escaped and we had to keep calling him all night long. He finally did come back.”
As the hours and then days passed, Jeff was convinced that the worse had happened, and that his home was ashes, along with everything they owned. He and Regina began considering what they would do next. He also shared his plight on social media.
“I jumped to a conclusion from what I thought was true,” says Jeff, who appreciates all the assistance offered by those who wanted to help when he posted on Facebook that his home was lost in the fire.
Kathy Thomas from Century 21 Ditton Realty went to work to locate a place for the family to live. Lori Prentice, who has made room in her home to help homeless families get a fresh start, offered to take them in. As is the case with the mountain community, people wanted to help.
Then, word came that the evacuations were lifted and the family could return to the property on Road 222.
When they arrived at their driveway gate at about 2 p.m. on Sunday, they saw charred ground. All the way up the driveway, there was burn on both sides. And then they saw their house – it was still standing.
“I was in awe, thinking how could this be?” says Jeff. “The flames that we saw and where we saw them and the terrain that fire was moving through – it was impossible. Just impossible.”
The fire had literally burned every bit of vegetation on the ground, but not the houses. All three had survived.
The three outside cats they had left behind had also survived. They haven’t yet located the litters of kittens, but Jeff thinks they might be hidden under his brother’s house or in the shed.
They lost one outbuilding – a barn where they kept hay. The wooden cross marking the grave of Jeff’s beloved dog Bogie, along with the collar he had hung there, was reduced to ashes, but Jeff intends to make another one.
The tipi he built from the branches of a pesky weed was also still there, still adorned with the Christmas lights he strung around it. The 100+ year-old oak tree standing next to the house is singed a little bit where the clothesline is attached, but is otherwise healthy and hearty.
When the fire broke out, Jeff had laid the garden hose and turned it on full blast, but with the power out, there was no water. He was grateful that the firefighters had been thoughtful enough to turn off the spigot so it didn’t drain water out onto the ground when the power came back on.
And speaking of those firefighters – Jeff says he was not kind in the heat of the moment as he and his family waited by the road last Thursday night.
“I was out there cussing about the firemen. ‘These so-called heroes are nothing but wusses. Where are they? Why aren’t they here?’ Well, these guys are heroes. They did some real work. They’re still at it right now,” he says gesturing toward the big red engine sitting behind his house, its crew continuing to work on hot spots.
Jeff and the rest of his family need to take credit too. They had cleared defensible space around their homes.
“My brother was out there every morning before he went to work,” says Jeff. “He would do weedeating every morning, and I took it down to the dirt with the Hula Hoe.”
If Jeff’s timeline is correct, and there is no reason to think otherwise, and those fire engines didn’t arrive on his driveway until after 2 a.m., then this fire likely burned up to his house before they arrived, and the efforts of he and his brother made all the difference, giving them a house to come home to. It was the same at his uncle’s home on top of the hill. They had eliminated the fuel around their structures, giving the fire nothing to burn.
The pickup in which they escaped the fire belongs to Jeff’s mother, who had a stroke about three months ago, and is in the hospital in Fresno. Though she can’t speak, she did see the stories on the news about the fire, and was able to write a note to the nurses asking for Jeff to call.
“So I talked to her a few days ago and told her that everything was fine, everybody got out okay, the animals were okay. I didn’t say anything about the house. I thought it was gone. But now I’m going to go visit her today and tell her everything’s good.”
As for his posts on Facebook, he says he has gotten a bit of flack from commenters.
“They’re not really giving me too much of a hard time, but some are saying things like, ‘It’s sad how some people take advantage just to get this or that.”‘
With so much chatter going on about it on social media, Jeff did feel he needed to address the situation.
“So I corrected that in writing this morning about my mistake. I jumped to a conclusion; from what I saw I thought it was true. Thought our house had burned down.”
He says he feels like a bit of an ass, but adds, “I’d rather have a house and feel like an ass, than not have a house. We’ve had quite the weekend, but hey, it ended well.”