'It Was A Moonscape': One Man Reflects On Losing Everything In The Lake Fire
Over the past few months more than 9,200 buildings have been damaged or destroyed during California's record setting wildfire season.
But while our focus shifts from blaze to blaze as more and more fires break out, it's easy to forget that there are just as many lives that have been upended as buildings that've been lost. And that months later, many still don't know how they're going to recover.
IT CAME OUT OF NOWHERE
For Michael Lacroix, it all started on August 12 in the hills above Palmdale, on a five acre property nestled right up against Angeles National Forest.
"It was 3:30 p.m., and my son's girlfriend came over. She knocked on the door, she said, 'You know, there's a fire and it's close.' And I said, 'How close?' She said, 'Well, it's about four miles away,'" recalled Lacroix.
Pine Canyon Road, where they lived, is quiet and remote. Rabbits, deer, mountain lions, and the occasional bear passed by. Native chaparral covered the landscape, an indication that the area had gone unburned for some time.
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Lacroix lived in a trailer next to his son's house, having moved in years prior after a bad divorce, growing closer with him and his young family.
He wasn't going to hang out there forever though. Long term, Lacroix said he was thinking about maybe moving to Nevada with his girlfriend, but for the time being he was happy with where he was.
"Next thing you know, about an hour later firemen show up," he said. "And I ask them, 'Is this serious?' And he says, 'Well, we're just doing an assessment.' But then I noticed they were taking all of the wood and flammables away from both of the houses."
It was serious.
The Lake Fire had broken out about two hours before.
Hot and dry wind gusts pushed the flames through the thick vegetation made crispy by a hotter than normal summer.
Smoke coalesced into a giant pyrocumulus cloud visible from over 75 miles away.
A BATTLE ENSUES
After the ground troops came the air support.
Lumbering 747s - amongst other aircraft - passed closely over the treetops. The deafening roar of their engines followed by tens of thousands of gallons of red fire retardant raining down on everything below.
"They dropped it all over our heads. All over the vehicles, all over the house. I was trying not to slip because it was so thick on the cement," said Lacroix.
A preventative measure to stop the fire from igniting the property that Lacroix and his son had spent so much time together working on.
It's tough to remember, he said, but he estimated he had an hour or two to pick through everything he owned and decide what he should pack up if given the order to go.
"It wasn't a panic, but things kind of slowed down to where it was difficult to figure out what to take," said Lacroix.
First he grabbed hockey skates and skis, only to think, "You know, Mike? There's probably more important things than those."
So instead he packed clothes, guns, and ammo (so that bullets wouldn't go off if the buildings caught on fire), but in the chaos he forgot to grab important photos, documents, and family heirlooms.
Before long, firefighters told him it was time to go.
On his way out of the house he turned around and took some pictures of the living room.
Not for insurance or anything.
Just to remember what life was like before.
He got into his truck with all his stuff and made his way down the driveway to where a gaggle of media had gathered to watch the flames march closer and closer to the property.
He left, worried about getting caught by fire on the one lane road, like the videos he'd seen of people trying to escape the Camp Fire in Paradise, California.
"It was just watching the flames coming over the hill towards the house when I was driving away," he said.
"Part of me was saying, the firemen are there. They're in the yard. There's probably six or eight of them. They're going to save it. And then the other part of me saying, you know, you may not ever see these things again."
RETURNING TO THE SCENE
He drove to the Panda Express in Palmdale, ordered an angus steak and walnut shrimp, and sat in the parking lot for hours thinking about what was next. That night he crashed at his girlfriend's daughters's house.
By the following evening the fire had passed, so he drove back up to the property.
The once chaparral-covered hills were now moonscapes.
The acrid fumes of everything that'd burned - wood, plastic, metal, and other building materials - hurt his lungs.
Animals that'd not managed to escape lying dead in a sea of ash.
"I pulled up the driveway and looked and saw the houses were gone. That's when I called my son. I said, 'I've got some terrible news for you. There's really nothing left,'" he said.
There was little evidence that a valiant effort had been made to save anything.
"I knew walking around that property that it would be super hard to defend ... because the growth was so heavy," he said. "I thought that they would be able to stop it before it got to the homes. Why I thought that, I don't know."
"It's kind of mind boggling when a house burns to the ground like that."
The reality of the total loss had barely set in as he turned to recovery.
The Red Cross put him up in a hotel for a few weeks while he tried to get things sorted.
More than $7,700 came in via a GoFundMe, set up his girlfriend's daughter, much of which, to his surprise, came from people he didn't know. That's helped him immensely. In part covering basics like clothes, toiletries, food, a printer, and additional nights in hotels.
When he turned to FEMA for assistance with bigger ticket items like a new trailer, he was denied help. The Lake Fire wasn't included in the Presidential Disaster Declaration - needed to free up federal aid - issued during California's August wildfires. Only those who suffered in the Northern part of the state received access.
The good news is that he did have renters' insurance, and had upped his policy in the months prior to the fire. But because he hadn't itemized everything before the blaze, he said getting the maximum amount of money from the insurance company has been difficult. And that everything he lost far exceeds the $33,000 policy. A not uncommon problem in California's high risk fire areas.
He's staying with his girlfriend for the time being, but is shopping around for a replacement trailer so that he can move back up to the property.
For now, his plans of moving out of state are on hold until things settle.
He's emotionally and mentally exhausted at times. Yet when asked, he still expressed a positive outlook regarding the future.
That his messy divorce taught him not to focus on the negative. And that his growing devotion to God gives him faith that things are going to be OK.
"It's not the end - it can be kind of a beginning," he said. "And it really just kind of hardens the resolve that there's going to be some changes coming anyway, because we had already planned it, and now it's just maybe with less stuff."