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Travis family, goats escape Northern California wildfire

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Christian Conrad
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – In the early morning hours of Aug. 19, it was quiet in Vacaville. In the rural neighborhood of Cherry Glen Rd., ash, as though snow, gently fell along the soft breeze that offered little reprieve from the heat, which had climbed into triple digits the previous week.

Second Lt. Elijah MacLaren, 60th Operations Support Squadron section commander, knew of the looming threat of the LNU Lightning Complex Fire, which was quickly descending on his home, and stepped outside at 1:30 a.m. to investigate any clues as to the fire’s proximity.

“It was eerie,” MacLaren said. “Outside my home, it’s pitch-black, so the only thing I could really see was the ash. You could smell smoke. It was all just very still—like something out of a horror movie.”

The stillness wouldn’t last, though, as police cruisers soon appeared on the once-silent street.

“They were knocking on doors, telling people to start thinking about evacuating,” MacLaren said. “We weren’t given orders at that time yet, but by that point, the fire was moving our way—fast.”

Grabbing a go-bag of essentials, MacLaren, a 16-year Air Force veteran, rallied his wife, Christina, a first lieutenant and an operating room nurse with Travis AFB’s 60th Surgical Operations Squadron, his two children, Lillian and Maverick, and headed for safety.

MacLaren said his military background helped him move his family out of danger quickly.

“After so many years in, that military part of you kind of takes over and says, ‘What’s needed? Where are we going? How are we getting there? Let’s go,’” MacLaren said.

After a frantic search for safe lodging, the family arrived to base around 5:30 a.m. and unpacked inside Travis AFB’s Westwind Inn. Later that morning, a neighbor of MacLaren’s, who hadn’t evacuated yet, informed the family that the evacuation radius had still yet to reach their home.

MacLaren decided to use this time as an opportunity to make a few trips home to safeguard more items from the fire.

“First thing on my mind was to get my goats,” he said. “The fire still wasn’t visible from where I was, so I felt good about grabbing a few other small things as well—keepsakes, documents, things like that.”

On his last trip back to base, MacLaren‘s trip would be complicated not only by those attempting to escape the fire, but by the fire itself.

“When I got back onto the interstate to head back to base, the fire had already jumped across the first few lanes of interstate and was burning the grassy areas of the median,” MacLaren said. “The four-lane highway was shrinking down to the two center lanes. You could feel the heat from the fire on both sides of the road, even with your windows rolled up.”

Eventually, MacLaren reached base around 5:15 p.m.

Roughly an hour later, Travis AFB’s leadership issued a mandatory evacuation of all non-essential personnel from the base, requiring the MacLaren family to once again pack their belongings and search for areas unaffected by the wildfires.

The MacLaren’s finally found a new place to rest and regroup inside their camper in a Wal-Mart parking lot in the nearby city of Dixon.

“Throughout the night, Christina and I both were coordinating with our squadrons, trying to make sure our Airmen were safe and had plans in case they were called to evacuate,” MacLaren said. “It was chaotic. Fortunately, though, everyone was safe—my family, my Airmen, my goats. We were very fortunate.”

Christina MacLaren was thankful her family was safe. She credited it to having a plan and taking decisive action.

“It’s certainly worth it to keep a firm plan in place,” she said. “Realizing your priorities at a moment’s notice is important, but so is knowing exactly what you may need for however long you’re away from home. You may feel safe at the time, but a situation can turn really dangerous if you become complacent.”

It wasn’t until the morning of Aug. 22 that the family was able to re-enter their neighborhood. By then, a house two-doors down from them had been burned down with acres behind them left scorched and smoldering. Their own property, however, remained unscathed.

“We were talking to a firefighter who said our goats may have ended up saving our home,” Christina said. “Having them out there grazing and keeping our grass short may have kept the fire from grabbing onto any more fuel.”

The area beyond their property, although not actively burning, remained hot with embers, which continued to be a threat.

MacLaren, along with his neighbors, took it upon themselves to douse the area to protect their homes from any potential hotspots or flare-ups. This endeavor strengthened his already immense respect for first responders, who were combatting the wildfire.

“Without the police and firefighters here doing their jobs, I’m not sure any of us would’ve made out as well as we had,” he said. “If anyone had done their job any differently—if the flight line hadn’t been evacuated as quickly as it had been, if command hadn’t evacuated the base when they did, if our own first responders and engineers hadn’t helped in the egress—things could’ve gone very differently. We were all really lucky to have had the help of them all.”