He had 10 minutes to flee the Salt fire. Now his home is gone

·6 min read
A scorched vehicle rests in a clearing in the Lakehead-Lakeshore community of unincorporated Shasta County, Calif., as the Salt Fire burns nearby on Friday, July 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A scorched vehicle rests Friday in a clearing in the Lakehead-Lakeshore community of unincorporated Shasta County, as the Salt fire burns nearby. (Noah Berger / Associated Press)

When Ethan Junkersfeld evacuated his Lakehead home Wednesday afternoon, he never thought it would be the last time he saw it intact.

The Salt fire in Shasta County had just ignited along Interstate 5, sparked by a vehicle that sent flammable material into dry brush, according to authorities.

A friend called and woke Junkersfeld from a nap, warning that flames were bearing down on their Cascade Cove neighborhood.

“I went outside and looked up, and I couldn't tell how far the fire was because we have a big hill,” Junkersfeld said Sunday. “So we just grabbed anything and left.”

“Anything” ended up being a duffel bag full of clothes and a case of water, he said. He and his fiancee fled with their sons, ages 3 and 6, to his father’s house in the city of Mount Shasta. He estimates they were out the door within 10 minutes from the time he woke up.

Junkersfeld, 24, who has lived in the area since the sixth grade, has had to evacuate due to fire at least three times before. Each time he returned to find his things unscathed.

But Thursday, a family friend was able to visit Cascade Cove and send pictures.

Junkersfeld’s home and all of his family’s belongings were reduced to ashes. The flames had spared only their brick chimney and a detached garage. Seven neighbors also lost their homes.

“Just two houses made it in our little neighborhood,” he said.

Authorities announced Saturday that the Salt fire had destroyed at least 27 homes and 14 outbuildings. In addition to Cascade Cove, there was destruction in the Gregory Creek Acres subdivision, photos show.

Meanwhile, containment of the fire, which had grown to 9,162 acres by Sunday morning, has improved to 15% from 5%. The fire is burning about 20 miles north of Redding.

More than 730 personnel were working to keep the fire east of Interstate 5 and the Sacramento arm of Shasta Lake, south of Pollard Flat to Crane Mountain and Green Mountain, west of the McCloud arm of Shasta Lake, and north of Gilman Road, according to authorities.

They were prioritizing the protection of homes along Gilman Road and in the communities of Pollock, Riverview and Lakehead, as well as private timberlands to the south and west, they said.

The Salt fire is one of three large wildfires burning in Northern California amid hot, dry conditions. Together, they have scorched tens of thousands of acres and forced thousands of people from their homes.

To the north, closer to the border with Oregon, containment of the 10,407-acre Tennant fire had also improved by Sunday morning,to 29% from 17%. About 768 personnel were trying to hold the fire to its perimeter and douse spot fires as they popped up.

The Tennant fire, which started late Monday afternoon near Highway 97 and Tennant Road in the Klamath National Forest, has destroyed at least two homes, one commercial building and two outbuildings, authorities said. Its cause remains under investigation.

The largest blaze, the Lava fire in Siskiyou County, stayed mostly within its footprint Saturday night, with little growth from the day before, authorities said. It was 24,752 acres and 39% contained as of Sunday morning, with 1,370 personnel assigned to it.

That fire was sparked by lightning June 24 in a remote area of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Crews left the scene, believing they'd extinguished it after it reached a quarter-acre, but it later came roaring back to life.

Officials have said the fight has been complicated by the terrain of ancient lava beds studded with trees and shrubs whose root systems can carry heat and flame underground.

Due to the drought and warming temperatures, vegetation is at record-dry levels, making burning conditions resemble those of August, rather than early July, authorities said.

There have been conflicting reports about whether the Lava fire has destroyed structures. Although no official count has been released, the fire does not appear to have wrought the level of destruction of the Salt fire.

Cascade Cove resident Gigi Abrego, 24, who lived near Junkersfeld in the small division of cabins along Gregory Creek Road, also lost everything.

After evacuating Wednesday with her husband and children, ages 3, 2 and 3 months, she learned the following day that their home was gone.

Video sent by a neighbor showed a singed above-ground swimming pool, the metal ladder across the yard; a pair of iron lawn chairs, the cushions burned away; and a scorched railing, the stairs beneath it, which once led to her yard, incinerated.

“It happened so fast and so unexpectedly,” Abrego wrote in a Facebook message. “My family and I barely got out of there with our children and dogs.”

Her 60-year-old father, who lived with them, has a broken ankle, so Abrego drove him out in his truck, while her husband drove one of their cars. Another car and truck they left behind burned. An aluminum fishing boat that had been handed down to her father by his father melted completely.

Abrego’s mother, Debbie Duster, 64, who lived nearby, also lost her home. Duster had moved there less than a month ago. By the time she heard that the fire had forced road closures, she was unable to get back in to retrieve her dogs, Abrego said.

A maintenance man on the property was able to grab two of the dogs, but the third didn’t come when called. The man left the door open so the dog would have a chance to outrun the fire. Abrego said the family is hoping the dog ran to one of the two homes in the division that didn’t burn.

Although she’s struggling with anxiety and grief, she is trying to remain strong.

“Every time I think I have a moment away from the kids to let a cry out they find me and I try and not let them see me this way,” she wrote. “I feel so empty inside, the only thing keeping me sane right now is my beautiful children. No one is ever really prepared for such a disaster to hit, mentally or physically, especially as fast as this fire came through.”

Junkersfeld said he and his family were similarly reeling.

“Our oldest, he’s had a little bit of a rough time,” he said. “My fiancee and I have been trying to cope as best we can, but it still hasn't hit us because we haven’t been able to go and see the house yet.”

He said he’s been encouraged by community members who have reached out to offer support. An online fundraising page had drawn more than $2,000 in donations as of Sunday afternoon.

But Junkersfeld said he does not plan to look for another place in Lakehead. Instead, he’ll move his family south, out of the mountains, and raise his sons in Redding or Mount Shasta.

The danger posed by wildfires, he said, has simply become too great.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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