Camping Through California’s “Holy Fire” Wildfire (2018)

On Monday, August 6 2018, Polly and I were camping up in the canyons adjacent to the Cleveland National Forest, when what became known as the “Holy Fire” broke-out in the mountains behind us.

Having lived in Southern California for nearly 20 years, we’ve become (somewhat) accustomed to the occasional natural disaster. We’ve experienced so many earthquakes, for example, they’re really no big deal, anymore. And we’ve been close enough to a couple of wildfires near our home down in San Diego County, that we really didn’t think we’d ever be as close as we were earlier this month.

Seeing smoke off in the mountains is always disconcerting, but this time something was different. It was a lot closer than what we’d experienced before, and there was a “vibe” that it was going to get worse before it got better

As seen from our camp space - This is the Holy Fire wildfire just after it started on Monday August 6 2018

Hoping things would be better by morning, we nervously went to sleep with the windows closed, and the air conditioning on. It was starting to smell very “smokey’ outside, and we didn’t want to be breathing that all night.

The next morning, our worst fears were coming true… The fire had gotten worse, it was becoming hard to breathe, and ash (along with burning soot) was falling everywhere.

Worst part was, we had no way to tow our RV. 

Literally.

We bought it thinking it would never leave the club, and the club provides tows between sites, and storage. 

Getting it off the grounds was another matter. One we hadn’t considered.

Thankfully, our awesome friend, Joel, offered to hook us up to his SUV, and we loaned him ours, in return.

We stayed there, hitched to his SUV all night, hoping for the best.

The next day, our camp club/resort began passing-out breathing masks, warning that a mandatory evacuation could happen at any time, which prompted our friends to start saying goodbye.

Moments after that pic was taken, the announcement came – “Mandatory evacuation — Everyone has to leave as soon as possible!”

We Were Evacuated From Our Campsite Because of the “Holy Fire”

I’d never hauled a trailer before, but I had no choice.

We had to leave most of our “stuff” at the campsite, but managed to tow our camper to the parking lot of a Vons grocery store, about a mile to the north.

There, I’m not sure things were any better, but we were still confident that Cal Fire would have it under control by the morning. After all, these folks are the best in the business when it comes to fighting wildfires.

The people at Vons were awesome, letting us all park our RVs there, handing-out free bottled water, and it was reassuring to see our fellow-campers all pulling-in, and we felt particularly relieved when Cal Fire stationed an emergency response team (consisting of five trucks & crews) there in the parking lot with us.

The next day, though, things took a turn for the worse, when the flames came-down the mountains, and threatened the Sycamore Creek Subdivision across the street from us.

Before long, we started feeling globs of what felt (& looked) like tar raining-down on us, and realized it was a gentle rain, combining with ash from the fire, as Cal Fire jets made non-stop trips between the Riverside airport, and our campground.

And coming back, making the return trip.

Evacuated a Second Time Because of the “Holy Fire”

That night, we were evacuated again. All of us in the Vons parking lot were told the fire had gotten close enough to threaten our safety.

As we pulled-out, having no idea where to go next, a friend suggested we head south, to a Walmart that apparently allowed people to park their RVs there, overnight.

“Crap,” I thought. Hauling a trailer for the first time made me nervous enough (especially using someone else’s SUV).

This time, I had to take it on a freeway.

The drive was horrific, and for the first time, the magnitude of the Holy Fire hit-home. There were literally dozens of squad cars (from countless jurisdictions) blocking all of the freeway exits, and waving those of us trying to leave, through to what had become bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeway. During the entire drive (more than 20 miles), the sky to the west, along the Santa Ana Mountains, was on fire.

When we finally got to the Lake Elsinore Walmart, the fire was still visible from the parking lot, more than 20 miles from where we started.

The next morning, the flames didn’t look any less threatening, and a friend who was in our caravan learned that a Riverside County park, Lake Skinner, was offering free RV spaces with full hook-ups, to all of the fire evacuees, including showers (which we desperately needed at that point).

Have to admit, the peace-and-quite (and lack of smoke) was a welcome reprieve. Kudos to the Riverside County Regional Parks for the awesome hospitality!

We learned we could head back to our camp (and possessions) on Tuesday, August 14, and it was such a relief to see everything just as we’d left it.

Thankfully, as if by some miracle, the fire had skirted around everything at our campground, coming within close proximity to several sites, but everything was spared.

Who Was “Holy Jim?”

For those wondering (and I certainly was), why the “Holy Jim” fire?

Turns-out that particular canyon was settled by a group of beekeepers in the 1880s, led by Jim Smith, a foul-mouthed fella who earned the nickname, “Holy Jim.”