Couple returns to ashes

California fires hit home for South Valley couple

EMBERS AND ASHES Jayme and Jeremy Simmons stand in the rubble of what used to be their home destroyed by a July 25 fire that ravaged 20 acres, burned several homes and outbuildings, and displaced 21 people. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Jayme and Jeremy Simmons were just about to head out on the Rubicon Trail, a 22-mile route through the Sierra Nevada, when they got the message from Jayme’s mom.

They had made the trip annually for the last 13 years and were about to be out of cell range for the next four days; this would be the last call they made before they hit the trail.

“She would have never usually called me at the start of my trip,” said Jayme, 41. “When I called her back she was hysterical, crying, ‘Your house is on fire and I cannot save your animals, and I think they’re all going to die. I got your dogs, but I think the livestock isn’t going to make it. I don’t think anything is going to make it.’”

The blaze, the Simmons would soon learn, started as a vegetation fire at 4:15pm July 25 in the 12100 block of Church Avenue. Before being contained by a firefighting blitz of ground crews and a helicopter, it would burn 20 acres and multiple homes, displacing 21 residents in the area, CalFire would later report.

Unsure what they’d find when they arrived home, the Simmons headed back to San Martin—an agonizing four-hour-drive.

The Simmons arrived to their home on Lena Avenue after nightfall.

“You could see flames,” said Jeremy, 41. “We were able to walk up as close as the neighbor’s fence over here, and we could see low embers and little flames. And, we could see the freeway behind the house, which you shouldn’t be able to see the freeway because the barn should be there.”

The main house on nearly 2.5 acres and owned by Jeremy’s parents Judy and Chuck Simmons was mostly unharmed by the fire, but the barn with a loft—which Jeremy and Jayme had converted into an apartment—along with Chuck’s workshop and the original cottage from the early 1900s, had been leveled.

Fifteen years earlier the Simmons had moved in with Jeremy’s parents. The young couple had lived in Murphys, and his parents had a home in nearby Arnold. Both couples sold their land and headed for the South Valley, where Jayme and Jeremy searched for a place to buy.

They didn’t find what they were looking for and stayed on the Lena Avenue property, where they taught themselves to farm and decided to return to school.

Jayme, now a ranger at Pinnacles National Monument, studied environmental geology while Jeremy earned his degree in environmental studies with economics and now does trail repairs and finish carpentry at Pinnacles.

Having previously been evacuated from their mountain home in Murphys, the Simmons thought they’d be safe from the same fire risks in South Valley. They didn’t expect to lose everything.

When they arrived, they couldn’t access the property.

“Last night we put up the hammock stretched between the Jeep and one of the trees out there.” said Jeremy.

Jayme said they just wanted to be sure the animals were OK and see if anything could be done to help them.

“All the chickens are dead,” said Jayme. They had lost about two dozen chickens—mostly rare breeds like silkies and small millefleurs.

The Simmons were relieved that their pigs had survived along with the majority of their goats, all Nigerian dwarves.

“This guy next door came over and saved their lives; he sprayed water on them the whole time,” said Jayme pointing to their neighbors, the Bettencourts.

“You can’t possibly get them to go where they don’t want to go,” said Jayme’s mom Gayle Ng of the seven pigs—a mixture of Yorkshires, Hampshires and Glaucester Old Spots—each weighing hundreds of pounds.

“They had the fence ripped up and were trying to get out,” said Jayme.

Touring the aftermath, the Simmons walked through the ashes.

“That’s our storage unit; that had everything in it,” said Jayme. “All my pictures from my childhood. All of that.”

Jamye was still searching the ashes for a ring and a broach that were given to her when her grandmother passed away.

She did find a piece of her baby blanket, which she hopes her mom will make into a quilt—a replacement for the one she had just received from her mom.

“She’s drawn me a lot of pictures,” Jeremy said as his eyes welled up. “Just for a lot of years now on anniversaries and birthdays, she just would draw me some memorable part of our trip. It just made me realize how fleeting my memory is.”

“Here’s my chop saw,” said Jeremy, picking up a melted circular blade—the only recognizable part that remained of the tool.

“My ’77 J20,” said Jeremy pointing to a green J20 Jeep Gladiator, they fondly called “The Beast.”

“You need a truck on a farm,” said Ng.

But the Simmons only had their Jeep, with the top and sides that were left behind destroyed. They lost several cars and motorcycles, including both of their daily drivers, which they needed to get to work on separate sides of the Pinnacles.

In addition to the vehicles and the chickens, their barn, the Simmons lost a breeding buck, named Jack.

Also lost on their property were several outbuildings including their storage, a welding shop and the original cottage.

“They lost everything,” Jayme said about the welders. “All their vehicles are here.”

Without the welders, Jeremy’s parents may not make their mortgage payments.

Mireya Mora, 31, had about 10 minutes to get out of the cottage, which she and Felipe Zamora, 30, had been renting for about a year.

Mora had only enough time to grab her dog, her purse and some clothes for the couple.

“His mom and his brother came here to help me, but the fire was here already,” said Mora. “Everything is gone: jewelry, money, everything.”

The water was still bubbling out of the pipes into the ashes.

“She had a couple things like her grandfather’s little wooden box that had been in her family for 200 years,” Zamora said about Mora’s precious family heirloom passed down from generation to generation from her family who had come from a town near Guadalajara.

“For now we’ll spend a couple of nights with my mom,” said Zamora. “I didn’t have any renter’s insurance.”

The Simmons also were without coverage and were not named in Jeremy’s parents’ policy.

“Having studied geology,” Jeremy said, “we were really prepared for an earthquake. It’s hard to prepare for fire because everything is gone. All your possessions are up in smoke.”

Jayme cautions readers, “Have an exit strategy, a way to contact your loved ones.”

The Simmons have been staying with Jayme’s parents and will be looking for housing.

Through the devastation, an experience of recovery that is just beginning, Jayme is still grateful “for my life, my husband’s life, my family,” she said. “Everybody is OK. My dogs. My goats were saved by a number of people—that helps.”

Jeremy is also grateful for the firefighters.

“They kept it wet,” he said. “They tried.”

To donate to the Simmons relief fund, visit https://bit.ly/2OsKY4a. People who wish to donate a tangible item can visit: https://amzn.to/2LVnPJj.

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