At 3 a.m., a fire erupts.
Smoke billows out of a house surrounded by dense forest. Flames rage into the night sky.
Cal Yarborough, former chief of the Big Creek Volunteer Fire Department, runs down the road, finds a hose and starts spraying a smoldering propane tank. Neighbors awake and race to the volunteer fire station to sound the alarm.
For over an hour, the Big Creek volunteer firefighters battle an inferno. Quick thinking and immediate action saves an entire community.
“One structure fire can decimate this whole area,” said Tony Hernandez, Southern California Edison (SCE) test technician and volunteer firefighter. “If we didn’t have anyone here locally to take care of that, there may not be a Big Creek.”
Video credit: Justin Felles, Joseph Foulk and Ernesto Sanchez.
The fire department has nine volunteers. Six are SCE employees at the Big Creek Hydroelectric Generating Station, located steps down the road. Two are children of SCE employees and one is the town’s church pastor.
About 90 percent of the residents have volunteered with the fire department. And for good reason — 50 miles of windy mountain roads separate Big Creek from Clovis, the nearest big city. Without the in-town volunteers, emergency help would be more than an hour away.
The crew trains twice a month to prepare for fires and rescue calls. The mountain location makes the community especially vulnerable to fire. In 1994, a wildfire burned 5,000 acres of forest around the town, right up to the backyards of homes — but the firefighters stood their ground and safely protected every home.
These men and women volunteer because they love their town — their neighbors, their co-workers and their family. That’s what life in Big Creek is all about — family.
“The safety of this town and our visitors depends on us,” said LaDonna Crane, chief of the Big Creek fire department and mother of two volunteer firefighters. “We never look forward to hearing that alarm, but we’re ready when the time comes.”