Editor’s note: Instead of interviewing folk in our community about this fire that came so close to swallowing our towns, we decided to let people speak for themselves and let you read their accounts in hopes that some of this will result in some healing for all of us.

Breanna Jewell

We had barely returned to Idyllwild from a month-long trip and hadn’t unpacked yet. I sat

The scene from Breanna Jewell’s home just before she and her family evacuated.
Photo by Breanna Jewell

down to feed the baby thinking I would unpack in a bit. Instead, I got a call from my husband that they were evacuating near the Point and I should go ahead and leave with the baby, just in case. I grabbed our vital documents, re-zipped our suitcases and loaded the car again! These pictures were taken as I was packing my car, about 10 minutes between the first and second one.

Sandy Gerety

My husband Dan and I just moved to Idyllwild on July 1. We had to evacuate so quickly we actually forgot to bring clothes. I gathered our two senior Chihuahuas, remembered the phone, but no charger. Hope this never happens again, but if it does, I’ll be better prepared.

Brian Parnell

Not sure what to say about the experience other than it was incredible to see everyone come together. It was a rollercoaster of emotion, like any tragedy, I suppose. The feeling of

The road blockade on Highway 243 leaving Idyllwild.
Photo by Brian Parnell

being able to help members of the community and also help those fighting so hard to protect us and the town, it’s just indescribable. Plus, the generosity shown to evacuees across Southern California was incredible. Tensions were high and a lot of people who evacuated were starting to air their frustrations at those who stayed, while others expressed great relief and gratitude to the ones checking up on their houses and animals, giving updates on the fire in between official announcements. When rumors would start down the Hill, the people up top were able to confirm or deny them. Whether people realize it or not, that is an invaluable asset to have in times of tragedy and panic.

I think the most tragic part was seeing the comments of people from out of state who were watching the same live feeds from various news helicopters during the worst days of the fires. There are apparently a lot of people out there who hate California and were actually pleased to see it burning. I stopped watching live feeds after that.

Over all, I think this will make the community even stronger. The amount of support coming from everywhere to help those who were impacted the most has been awe inspiring. A few of us are working on putting a benefit concert and album together to support victims of the fires. Still in the planning stages, but we’ll have details for everyone soon.

Pam Schmidt

My grandsons and I had just come back from a trip to town and I smelled a little smoke.

Pam Schmidt’s yard just before they left.
Photo by Pam Schmidt

Then I heard sirens on Double View. I saw a little smoke from our deck and told the boys to get ready to leave. Cub Scout training kicked into gear, and we had the car with our elderly Golden Retriever ready to go in less than 15 minutes. Right before we left, I took this picture ... We drove away at around 1:20.

Charles Phelan and Marcia Harlan 

Marcia and I made the decision to evacuate even before the official order came through for Pine Cove residents. With two large dogs and no other place to go to, we reserved a room at a pet-friendly hotel in Banning. Difficult conditions, to say the least, but we were safe and had a roof over our heads in an air-conditioned room.

The low point for me came on Thursday after it appeared that the Tahquitz Peak Fire Lookout had been lost. But not so fast! Jon King, local trail expert and mountaineer, texted a photo of the tower still standing at sunset, flag waving!

I then spent much of Thursday evening trying to quash the persistent rumor that the fire lookout was gone. The “Old Gray Lady,” as some of us call her, was almost burned over several times, but incredibly, she is still standing!

By Friday morning, we had had enough of the Banning heat and wanted to leave. But where to go? The pet-friendly places within driving distance had all been booked up. Yet the incident update report said that Pine Cove residents with proof of address north of Marion Ridge would be allowed to enter at Banning.

We were allowed through the check points and were back home in Pine Cove by noon on Friday. Given how eerily empty it was here, we found it very reassuring to see Sheriff vehicles constantly patrolling our neighborhood.

By Friday evening, it seemed we had turned the corner and could relax a little. Not quite. On Saturday morning, we learned that overnight the fire had breached the retardant barrier along the South Ridge in a few places. There were new hotspots threatening to carry fire down the ridge into town and also another threat to the lookout tower!

I watched all day Saturday via the Pine Cove webcam and also live from the cell tower below Marion Ridge in Pine Cove. There were countless helicopter water drops, and several DC-10s came screaming right over our house, a few hundred feet off the deck.

Given the ongoing risk, we stayed packed and ready to evacuate again for all of Friday and Saturday. It was only when the evacuation was lifted Sunday morning that we felt like we could come down from “Defcon 5.”

Laura Huff

I was eating lunch around noon and glanced out the window and noticed it looked more like sunset than noon. I walked [through] my home and then smelled smoke. It looked very

Smoke seen from Laura Huff’s home just before she left.
Photo by Laura Huff

close (I’m off Cowbell Alley in Saunders Meadow) … I kind of panicked a little when I heard sirens. I walked my dog to the end of my driveway, and my one neighbor yelled out that we had to leave NOW!  Mandatory evacuation. I had gone through the Mountain Fire and now it was happening again.

I ran through the house with my “evacuation list,” but I was alone and the stress and fear took over ... I just threw random things in my car, grabbed my dog, turned on the lights, locked the door and took off. Driving through falling ash and thick dark smoke was scary, and I thought I’d never see my home again.

I cried part of the way, and stopped to take photos and compose myself. The next few days were the toughest. I was constantly on Facebook and got little sleep. It was a roller coaster of emotions.

I learned quickly not to believe everything people posted and to trust

certain sources. Rebecca Vasconcellos was my Angel ... she was able to get to my home, send photos after a walk around and that completely put my anxiety to rest.

Arriving back in town was the most amazing feeling ever! I waved at engines coming off the Hill, and when they waved or honked back, it gave me goosebumps!

Those first responders were so wonderful, as were the town people who stayed behind and fed them and fed us valuable information. The news was lacking, except for Jenny, Tiffany, Pat, Rob and Rebecca. Thank you doesn’t begin to express my gratitude.

Mikele Kreitner

Against the better judgment of my friends and loved ones, I stayed. I am so glad I made that decision, even amidst backlash due to concerns for our safety and the safety of the first responders. The backlash was understandable, but unwarranted.

I know it was difficult for those who left as they could not see what was happening and had to rely on the sensationalism of news sources and chaotic emotional reactions touting misinformation. No matter where you were during this catastrophe, it was scary and stressful as hell. It is how that stress is dealt with that sets the pace.

Up here, the fear was magnanimous but it was calm and proactive. Civilians and business owners alike donated food, water, shelter and time to making sure those men and women who were saving this mountain were well taken care of.

Some of us donated time and energy to quelling the fears of residents who had left behind cats, chickens, chinchillas, turtles, plants and vulnerable homes.

We got on ladders and crawled through the windows of neighbors we have never met in order to feed and water the furry family members that were left in the melee. Some just needed the reassurance that their homes and neighborhoods were still standing.

We did just about everything we could do to help ease the terror of our evacuated community. I can’t count the number of times I was stopped by someone who would slow down just to ask if I was OK or if I needed anything. The community effort up here was glorious in the face of disaster.

I will never be able to accurately describe in words the human beauty and compassion that I witnessed in the past five days.

Now, as I sit here on my deck on this last quiet morning in the valley of our little mountain community, I gaze up at the calm and stoic permanency of the outcrop of granite known as Lily Rock. Her fixedness is reassuring as she watches over her valley shrouded in an ethereal blue haze. A whisper is all that is left of the cacophony of blazing plumes.

The emergency-vehicle traffic along my street has been replaced by civilian vehicles carrying returning evacuees. The people of Idyllwild are finally coming home. I hope they know what it is they are coming home to.

Natasha Woods

First knowledge of the fire was a simple text from my husband I read as we walked through Target, “Hey there’s a fire on the 74, and you won’t be able to get back up that way.”

No biggie.

“Guess what boys? We get to go a new way home! Let’s grab a snack so your bellies won’t get too hungry.”

Twenty minutes later ... three missed calls, “Geez, he must want to make sure I don’t forget something before I head back up. I wish Target had better cell service,” I think.

I call and his voice is off, “I have 20 minutes to get out of here, send me a text of anything you want to make sure I grab.”

Twenty minutes to gather whatever pieces of our life I wanted to have spared from the flames.

I wanted to say, “Grab the little monster trucks our boys love to play with.

Grab my silly rock collection they have given me.

“Grab that picture from our wedding day when I was a bride and so excited to marry you.”

But the list had to be brief. “OK, essentials only: pets, clothes and yourself. Just leave and please be safe.”

We spent the next days calling our time in my parent’s travel trailer a “vacation” so the kids would be spared those grown-up stresses, but every time I looked up and saw the smoke, my heart would ache.

Now that we are home, I can’t help but have a better appreciation of how quickly our lives can change, for the better or for the worse. We just never really know what the day will bring.

Brendan Collier

I came back Wednesday from a trip to LA for a job interview. I saw the plume, checked the TC Facebook page and alerted my mom on Double View. I arrived at her house to the

Local contractors worked with fire crews from to help clean up and rebuild as the fire became contained. Brendan Collier found a small job helping out.
Photo by Brendan Collier

dramatic scene here.

We evacuated to Silent Valley RV Park — they were so kind to us. I regularly went to the intersection in the second picture for cell service, and began texting my firefighter friends with questions about fire service.

Today, I am in Garner Valley, working for a friend with a fire contract, and talking with firefighters from all over the map, asking them questions about their line of work and educating myself on a possible second career path.

Rosemarie Stevens

Today is the anniversary of my twin’s death. James Stevens was a paramedic and firefighter from Fullerton, who died of a heart attack during the evacuation in 2013.

Several more firemen have lost their lives in recent fires around the state.

My phone vibrated all day as the fire began, and I felt the Spirit world were watching with tears that arson could put them and the trees, animals, God’s creation in danger.

Thank brave women and men who put their lives on the line and all who come to the aid of one another.

Smoke above South Ridge as seen from the center of town on Wednesday evening.
Photo by Amber Booth

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