By Raiza Giorgi
Crystal and Robert Van Aacken woke up in the early hours of Saturday morning choking on smoke. They usually sleep with the windows open on hot days and when daylight broke they headed out with their two children to get a view of where the fire was headed.
“We watched the smoke plume get larger and closer and I just had this sinking feeling that we needed to prepare for the worst,” Crystal Van Aacken said.
The Creek Fire started the evening of Friday, September 4, and in the six days of being active it has exploded to more than 175,000 acres and is still 0 percent contained, according to CalFire. More than 60 single family homes, 277 mixed use commercial/residential buildings, and a few outbuildings have been destroyed, including the Van Aacken’s home.
Governor Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency Thursday to help ensure the availability of vital resources to combat fires burning across the state, which have been exacerbated by the effects of the historic West Coast heat wave and sustained high winds.
The Van Aacken’s returned home to pack as much as they could, taking family mementos and their pets, two dogs, a cat and a ball python. They decided that it would be prudent to start evacuating even before the orders came through and went to stay with Robert’s godparents who lived further down the mountain.
“The smoke was so thick I was throwing up, it was awful and having this sinking feeling we were leaving home for the last time was terrifying,” she added.
It wasn’t very long before the Van Aacken family moved into their home at Shaver Lake four years ago after living in Buellton. Van Aacken still works remotely for Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, and her husband who is a contractor is temporarily out of work..
“We wanted to give our kids a different upbringing and we love being in the mountains riding dirt bikes, hiking and playing in the lakes and rivers. We really thought this was our year and actually had a savings,” she added. She added an emphasis on “had”.
Living in a place with a high fire danger, the Van Aacken’s were diligent about keeping their property clear of overgrown vegetation.
“Most of our neighbors are also very conscious of this as the forest is so overloaded with dead brush and trees that have needed to be cleared for years,” she said.
On Sunday the Van Aacken’s had to evacuate again as their godparents home was now included in the evacuation warning zone. They watched on their “Ring” app as the fire drew closer and in the video Crystal posted on her Facebook page, you can hear the roar of the fire and the cracking and popping of trees. You can also see their American flag whip back and forth in the wind just before the video cuts out as the power went out.
The Van Aacken’s left Labor Day Monday for Santa Barbara County to stay with her father and got an alert from a friend about some random person filming properties in Shaver Lake that burned. She pulled up the video and said her heart sank as the person was filming her home, or the pile of ash and debris that remained.
“It’s a surreal feeling that one day you are fine and getting ready to paint your home and just a few days later you’re homeless,” she said.
She added they are taking it hour by hour as there are so many new tasks which lay before them.
“How do you even deal with insurance about this? How do you talk to the bank to pay a loan on a house that isn’t there anymore,” she said.
Their friends back on the Central Coast including friends in the Santa Ynez Valley that have rallied to help them get through this time and set up a GoFundMe account. In one day they have already raised more than $7,300 of a $25,000 goal.
“I am usually the one helping support others and it was incredibly amazing and appreciated they did this. It’s hard to accept help because my family has always been hard working and self reliant, but we are so grateful,” Van Aacken said.
Approximately 14,000 firefighters remain on the line of 29 major wildfires burning across California as of Sept. 10. Although 37 new fires were sparked yesterday, crews contained most of them quickly though two have grown to large wildfires. Since the beginning of the year, wildfires have now burned over 3.1 million acres in California. There have been 12 fatalities and more than 3,900 structures destroyed. This year’s fire season has been a record-breaking year, in not only the total amount of acres burned, but six of the top 20 largest wildfires in California history have occurred in 2020, according to CalFire.
The Thomas Fire which burned 281,893 acres in 2017 now sits at #5 of the biggest fires in California history.