Within eight minutes of receiving the Nixle alert that Sugar Pine residents could return to the little community at noon on Sept. 9, Nicole Cook was on her way to check on the condition of her father’s cabin. Tears came to her eyes as she watched ducks swimming and dragonflies darting here and there on the old lumber mill pond. She did not know what to expect and came prepared with a mask to filter the air if needed. She did not need it.
In its heyday, Sugar Pine was a bustling lumber mill town of 300 with a railroad, a doctor’s residence (Cook grew up in that house) and a small hospital. Today, about 20 people live there full time, but its population grows on weekend and holidays with vacationers seeking a cool retreat in the mountains.
Many know the area for the Lewis Creek Trail that is filled with dogwood blossoms in the spring, and those trees will bloom again next spring thanks to the Los Padres Forest Service hotshots and many others.
The place is steeped in history and Cook is very much a part of that as she is a fifth-generation “Sugarpiner,” her mother, Stella Pizelo, explained.
Cook graduated from Yosemite High School in 1997 and her career with CNN took her to New York. An only child, she would explain to coworkers that “I grew up in a community of 10 people in the winter and my dad (Carl Cook) was the volunteer fire department.”
Standing in Sugar Pine, the only hint that there had been a fire was from a slight smell of smoke in the air and the ash on the ground and on decks and steps of homes. Dozers had cut a fire break around the entire community and the adjoining Sugar Pine Christian Camps.
Not all of the residents evacuated the area. Ryan DeWitt and Jason Torlano stayed taking two-hour shifts patrolling the area to be sure no spot fires ignited. One of them stayed awake while the other slept for two hours.
Five times in the nine days that Sugar Pine was evacuated, Torlano ran to the mill pond when the fire seemed to be ready to close in on the area. Even the firefighters were ready to evacuate a couple of those times when there was a 20 mph downwind at night and then 20-30 mph upwinds when a thunderstorm cell came through.
Torlano slept on his metal roof with his head laying on it so “I could hear the crackle of the fire if it came this way,” he said. Backfires were lit adjacent to his home as crews worked to bring the Railroad Fire under control. His 5-month-old kitten, Storm, began digging a hole in the ground almost immediately after the fire started, in the hopes of finding shelter.
Part time and full time residents of Sugar Pine recently met in front of the Community Center which formerly served as the volunteer fire station, expressing gratitude that their homes had been saved.
Cook and Pizelo, who also grew up in Sugar Pine, are keepers of the history of the place.
Ninety-five years ago on Sept. 9 (the same date residents were allowed to return), in 1922, another fire swept through Sugar Pine “leaving hundreds homeless and causing over $2 million damage in the forest, Pizelo said. “Within one year after the fire, Sugar Pine had been rebulit and started up the lumber production again.”
No lives were lost in that fire but only some of the residences survived. It was community movie night when that fire began and people packed into the few vehicles there to escape the blaze.
Cook’s dad’s 1957 Chevy 3600, nicknamed Maynard, survived this fire. She, her dad and others had tried to get it started during the evacuation but were unsuccessful.
The cabin where Cook and her mother grew up was purchased by Pizelo’s grandmother, Bernice Clark and her great grandmother, Stella Brown, in 1946. Before it was a doctor’s residence it had been the residence of Carl P. Russell, author of “One Hundred Years in Yosemite.” He later became the superintendent of Yosemite National Park.
The cabin owned by Cook’s father was once the community hall and the cabin next door is owned by her cousin, Terry Hill. That cabin was formerly the business office for the Madera Sugar Pine operation.
“Our favorite reference is ‘Thunder in the Mountains’ by Hank Johnston,” Pizelo said. She mentions it as a good source of additional information about the history of Sugar Pine. “The faces have changed over the years, but the spirit remains. Love that. God bless firefighters.”