Sitting in his RV with his most important belongings, watching flames lick the edges of Big Pine, Kent Schlick had one major concern on his mind: a friend whom he hoped had evacuated his home as well.
“I had gone over to my friend’s trailer because he is a private individual and I was concerned he had decided to wait for the fire to blow over and had not evacuated,” Schlick said.
When he arrived with a Sheriff at the Glacier View Trailer Park where his friend lived, there was fire 25 feet from his trailer. Schlick went inside and looked around but did not find his friend. As he sat in motorhome later, he feared that somehow he had missed him and he was still in his trailer that had now burned to the ground – along with nine other trailers.
Fortunately, it turns out his friend had heard Inyo County Sheriffs driving through the trailer park with loudspeakers telling people to evacuate. He had heeded that warning, grabbing all but two of his cats, which are still missing.
The Center Fire started around 3 p.m. on March 18 less than one mile from the town of Big Pine. Reports have been verified that an AA group, which had been renting rooms from the Bernasconi School had started a fire to keep themselves warm. When the group left, they believed the fire to be out, but strong winds picked up the fire’s embers and it quickly began to spread.
Schlick had been in Bishop when the fire started. He could see smoke in the direction of Big Pine and decided to start heading home. It was then that he received a red alert on his phone from the Sheriff’s Department.
“The Sheriffs Department has a code red system that you can sign up for in order to receive alerts about any emergencies in your town,” Schlick explained.
The system calls one’s phone and reports what it going on and continues to send you updates throughout the incident. ]
“It keeps you in the loop and helps word travel quickly,” Schlick explained.
Throughout the rest of the afternoon and into the evening the fire raged all around Big Pine, jumping whichever way the wind dictated. U.S. 395 was shut down in both directions for hours, and Big Pine residents watched and waited, some from outlying roads where they had been evacuated, others still in their homes waiting for word from the Sheriff’s Department in case they had to flee as well.
At one point the fire was headed for the center of town, right toward the fire station.
“The command center had been set up next to the fire station so at one point the emergency teams thought they were going to have to evacuate as well,” Schlick said. At the last minute, however, the fire changed direction. In a similar nail-biting situation, Schlick watched as the fire headed toward the town’s landmark Bristlecone Pine, ready to consume it. At the last minute, the fire jumped the highway, away from the tree.
19 residences were not so lucky.
“The relief efforts started immediately,” Schlick explained. Town leaders began organizing the recovery and the Big Pine Unified School District offered to put a link on its home website to all the efforts going on and options for those in need. This link has now become the central information source for people either in need of help, or looking to help. (Check it out at www.bp.k12.ca.us).
Schlick has lived in Big Pine long enough to have also experienced the Inyo Complex Fire several years ago. Still a newcomer to town then, he had arrived home that fateful day to discover there was a fire in progress, he found that his neighbors had come over to his house to help his wife pack up the car.
“They were helping her when they could have just been helping themselves,” Schlick said.
So this time around, Schlick wishes to return the favor.
“The support of everyone in the Eastern Sierra has been overwhelming,” he said. “We’re taking care of each other, which is the way America should be.”