This is a first-person witness report written by fine art photographer and documentarian Kirti Bassendine. She and her husband were in their RV at Thousand Trails RV Park when the Trail Fire began on July 16.
I awoke on July 16 as usual to the constant pecking and drilling of woodpeckers trying to insert an acorn into the roof of our RV. Tuesday morning seemed normal as any others here at the Thousand Trails RV Park near Paicines; beautiful sunshine and blue skies, though strong gusts of wind kicked up late morning.
A little past lunchtime, almost 2 p.m. and time to stop work, I checked on a scheduled phone call that I hadn’t received yet and grabbed lunch. When the call finally came through there was a knock on the door. It was the neighbor across the street with four children, whom I had met just a few days earlier. She informed me that there was a fire behind us near the creek. She said they were packing as her sister had lost everything in the Paradise Fire. I looked behind me and there was smoke rising over the tree line very close to us and helicopters were flying towards the fire.
I exclaimed on the phone quickly that I had to go… I would call her back. I then immediately informed my husband David that a fire was close behind us and that we had to pack up and hitch the RV for evacuation! We closed our laptops, put them safely in the car and he went out to start the hitching process. We both tried to stay calm, though the situation made us feel anxious.
It normally takes us anywhere from 25-35 minutes to be ready to drive out in an emergency. We were caught in a similar situation in San Diego at a similar RV park in Spring 2017. That time, we had 20 minutes to get out while the flames and smoke were raging closer to us.
Again, we were caught only a few months later in October 2017 in the Santa Rosa Fire, where we were trapped as both sides of Highway 101 were shut down. We only managed to escape late at night when the highway opened for a few hours. Driving through the flames on both sides of the highway was terrifying. I still get shivers remembering that day. The fires in California are too close and too real for us.
While David was outside connecting the trailer, I grabbed all my important gear, filled up water bottles, cleared surfaces, put dishes in the sink, and brought the slider in. I tried accessing the Cal Fire app with no luck. Called the ranger station, no luck. Our focus at that point was to hitch-up calmly and smoothly to be ready to evacuate if needed. We saw a few neighbors hitched, others were waiting to be alerted before hitching and others were away or didn’t have a vehicle to pull their trailer. I called my friends to alert them. One next door neighbor informed me he couldn’t hitch and leave because his truck didn’t have gas!
Raymond, the maintenance employee at the park (not working that day), was in this car with his family, ready to evacuate if need be.
“It’s best to be ready, you can’t take a risk. I am packed up ready,” he said.
I asked how long they give us to evacuate; he said that they have a loudspeaker and the rangers will come around and inform everyone with clear directions of what to do.
Another neighbor Rachel, her boyfriend Ben and son Jayden, were resting inside and didn’t even realize there was a fire for almost an hour.
“We are full-timers and alternate between two parks. We like it here,” she said. “I went to check at the ranger station. They are not allowing anyone to leave or enter the park as they need the road clear for emergency access.”
Luckily, the fire was contained promptly by Cal Fire and by the next morning, we learned it was very close here at the park. Fortunately, the wind was blowing away from the park.
This was a close call. One of the first fires of the season was very stressful and exhausting. But, it has allowed us to test and prepare for any upcoming emergency. We know that it takes us 25-30 minutes to pack-up. We have our emergency bag ready with our masks. We will stay vigilant and alert.