Rescued From the Flames of Judgment: A Family’s Escape from the Holy Jim Fire

The sun rising above the red smoke of the Holy Fire in Trabuco Canyon on August 7

A friend in El Paseo texts Melodi and Tilson Schumate a bible verse every day. On August 6, 2018, the passage was Jude 1: 22-23, which reads, “And you must show mercy to those whose faith is wavering. Rescue others by snatching them from the flames of judgement.”

Melodi thought about this as she stepped outside of her home in Holy Jim Canyon a little after 1:00 PM on Aug. 6 to cook hamburgers for her and her husband. The thermostat hovered around 100 degrees, and the dryness in the air kicked up dust off the long dirt road that connects Holy Jim Canyon to Trabuco Canyon some 5 miles away. She’d just finished hanging the curtains after remodeling their home that morning. The only fire on Melodi’s mind at the time would be the one on the family barbecue which sat underneath a canopy of oak trees.

In the 44 years they’ve been married, the Schumates have seen innumerable fires. The Schumates are the longest-lasting residents of Holy Jim Canyon. Tilson bought their cabin–Cabin 62–for $200 back in 1969, five years before he and Melodi were married. (Melodi’s soft-spoken nature is the antithesis of Tilson’s demeanor, which is quick and explosive like an M-80.) The canyon burns almost every year, and flames have come close enough to whip the side of Cabin 62 a handful of times. Still, the cabin has never been burned, and the Schumates have learned to live in a tenuous peace with wildfires.

“My Lord and savior Jesus is my fire insurance,” Melodi says.

Before Melodi reached to turn on the barbecue, she smelled a slight burning in the dry afternoon heat. Melodi was brewing tea at the time, and thought the smell could be from a burning tea bag. She looked over to the kettle, but the bag was fine. Melodi turned her head toward the opening of the canyon and saw a plume of charcoal black smoke rising above the oak canopy.

“Oh my gosh,” Melodi said to Tilson, There’s smoke down there, we need to go now!”

The Schumate’s ran inside to pack. Melodi grabbed a grey backpack, packed a change of clothes and her warn, purple-covered bible, grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran outside. Tilson had turned the sprinklers on the cabin for protection, and was waiting outside with a shovel to fight the fire. The two got into their car and drove down the only road toward the exit.

They’d driven less than a mile to the Holy Jim firehouse when they found the road was blocked by a wall of fire.

“There was a wall of flames bigger than a house and there was no way we could drive through it,” Melodi remembers. “And that was the only way out.”

Tilson turned the car around and drove the opposite way to the broad dirt parking lot at the base of the Holy Jim trailhead at the end of the road. Moving to the parking lot gave the Schumate’s distance from the fire, but it trapped them against the base of the Saddleback Mountains. They were trapped. Their only escape route was the Holy Jim Trail–a grueling, narrow incline inaccessible to vehicles that climbed 10 miles along switchbacks up the face of the mountain to the North Main Divide.

The Schumate’s parked, and took off running up the trail. Behind them, the fire had reached the parking lot, and was climbing toward them.

“We were running for our lives,” Melodi remembers, “It came so fast–through tears–you have no idea. I didn’t know fires moved so fast. It came over the mountain in a line. You couldn’t escape it if you wanted to, and it just kept coming after us. First there was like 4 hills between us and the fire, and all of a sudden there was 3, and then 2 hills.”

The Schumate’s are in their sixties. Although they’re experienced hikers and physically active, the Holy Jim trail is an exhausting challenge for twenty-year-olds.

“Oh my gosh,” Tilson said with the flames behind him, “oh my gosh we gotta get going this is catching.’

“I can’t look,” Melodi groaned as she continued to run up the hill with her backpack.

Smoke from the Holy Fire, as seen from El Toro Road. Photo: Gavin Ellis

 

Miles below, fire crews from across the state were assembled at the Trabuco Canyon firehouse to battle the flames. 1,200 acres of the Cleveland National Forest near Holy Jim were already burning at that time, and fire crew from the U.S. Forestry Service, the Orange County Fire Authority, the Riverside County Fire Authority, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, and Cal Fire were combatting the flames. Of the 600 fire personnel dispatched to fight the fire, two had sustained minor injuries, according to the Orange County Fire Authority.

“The fire is pushing to the east and the south east,” said Officer Jake Rodriguez of the U.S. Forestry Service. “The biggest problems facing the fire crews are terrain and weather. Because the roads are so narrow, many officers have to hike uphill from the Riverside side of the mountain to New Divide Road to fight the fire. From the base, it takes them about an hour to get to New Divide Road.”

The fire in Holy Jim Canyon, being touted as the Holy Fire, is the largest fire since the 2014 Silverado fire which burned 1000 acres.

“The biggest thing that will help us is our training,” Officer Rodriguez continued. He explained how fire crews train year-round to be mentally, emotionally, and physically prepared for a fire of this magnitude. “It’s the mental mindset and tenacity that’s very important.”

The Schumates ran up the trail until they were physically exhausted. Their pace slowed to a panicked trot as fatigue set in. Every hundred feet, Melodi attempted to call 911 on her cell phone. Every time, the call failed.

They’d already traversed up miles of switchbacks by then. Ahead of them, after more miles the trail, was a lookout point at the top of the mountain where helicopters occasionally landed. Behind them was an endless landscape of scorched chaparral brush, engulfed in flames the size of buildings. The Schumates screamed prayers for repentance and safety as they climbed, believing that they may soon be killed by the flames.

“It felt like the devil was pursuing us,” Tilson recalls. “Every time we’d look back, there was a wall of flames and black, burning and smoking hillsides as far as I could see.”

Tilson thought of the biblical story of Abraham as he looked toward the lashing flames that consumed the canyon. As Tilson summarizes the scripture, God called Abraham and his wife Sarah to abandon their homeland in the Ur of the Chaldean–a land which translates to the flames of destruction. In return, God promised Abraham to keep his family safe and prosperous. “Here we are,” Tilson thought, “everything we have–our cabin, our car, all our pictures– is being destroyed. Here we are, Lord, being called out of our home.”

After reaching the end of a switchback, the Schumates paused to catch their breath. Melodi tried to call 911 again, while Tilson unlatched the top of the gallon of water.

Tilson turned to Melodi and said, “Isn’t it something that we just finished remodeling, and everything was so perfect. Why would the Lord allow it to be burned.”

Just then, Tilson remembers feeling a calm presence telling him that everything would be fine. He thought about the cabin and the cars. Those things are replaceable, he thought. Everything behind them was gone. The only place they could go was ahead, onto a new life, and hopefully salvation from a fire rescue crew.

Flames from the Holy Fire burning into the night of August 6.

The Schumates’ exhaustion had reached a critical stage. They’d hiked for over an hour in the 100 degree heat, and were running out of water.

“Just leave me here, go save yourself,” Melodi repeatedly said to Tilson.

“We can’t stay here,” Tilson answered. “Just a few more switchbacks.”

By then, Tilson was walking behind Melodi with his hand on her back physically pushing her up the face of Saddleback Mountain. They were trying to get to a flat clearing they called the Mesa near the mountain ridge.

“Oh my gosh we’re gonna die out here,” Melodi repeated between prayers.

“Just two more miles,” Tilson said. “That’s all we have to go to get to the Mesa.”

Melodi kept calling 911, but his calls failed to connect. “We kept praying,” Melodi remembers. “I was so exhausted, but he kept pushing me on my back up the hill because I couldn’t walk another step.”

Behind the Schumates, the fire was growing faster. When fire catches in a canyon this steep, it invariably increases in speed an intensity as it moves uphill. 

Suddenly, Melodi’s cell phone began to ring. She fumbled, but opened her flip phone. Miraculously, Rob Toll–a friend of the Schumate’s who’d called twenty times to check on the couple, and knew the terrain well–had managed to call at just the right time to get service.

“Are you alright?” Rob said.

“Dear God Rob, call somebody!” Melodi yelled in a cracked voice. “We’re gonna die!”

“Where are you at?” Rob asked.

“We’re headed towards Ortega, but we’re pretty tired and exhausted.” Melodi answered. “I don’t think we’re gonna make it.”

Rob told her to find a clearing and wait for a helicopter. Immediately after he hung up, Rob contacted fire authorities in the area.

They were running out of land ahead of them, and to remain still would mean certain death. Melodi wanted to stay on the trail and continue the clear ascent to the Mesa clearing. Tilson wanted to scramble the face of the mountain to the clearing. Tilson’s route would be shorter, but more daunting, and for the Schumates–who’d already struggled through nearly ten steep miles of rugged terrain–the choice between weary expediency over bushes and an unimpeded longer path could also be the choice between life and death. After a short argument, they chose Tilson’s route, climbing toward the Mesa, hoping a rescue helicopter would pull them from the flames.

When the Schumates reached the peak of the Mesa, they spotted a rescue helicopter hovering high above them. Melodi collapsed to her knees and thanked God with an exhausted, hoarse voice. The helicopter hovered for a minute, circled and left.

“It’s gonna leave us!” Melodi yelled. “Why won’t it land?”

“Don’t worry, they won’t let us down,” Tilson offered, nervous but certain.

Minutes later, the helicopter was back. The helicopter lowered a rescue worker on a rope onto the Mesa with the Schumates. The rescue officer gave Melodi some water and told Tilson, “You’re going up first.”

“No way, my wife’s going up first!” Tilson shouted back.

“No,” the officer explained, “I’m gonna need to go up with her.”

Tilson unhappily agreed, grabbed the rope, and was hoisted up to safety in the sky above the flames. When the rope returned, the officer latched Melodi onto him and the two were lifted out of the flames. Melodi was too exhausted to stand on her own, and her throat was too coarse to speak. Once inside the helicopter, she laid on the floor too tired to move till the helicopter landed safely in the Oakley parking lot in Lake Forest.

“That officer was special,” Melodi remembers. In the helicopter, the officer gave the Schumate’s a notecard with his name and number. “Officer Jim Slikker, Orange County Sheriff’s department,” Melodi says as she credits the man with saving their lives.

Their home was somewhere back there, consumed in the Ur of the Chaldeans. The Schumate’s had to abandon their house, their car, and all the sentimental trinkets that go into making a piece of land a home. That piece of land–Cabin 62–as a part of the Schumates. They’d owned it for nearly 50 years. Of course they are devastated to see it go, but they do have peace. The Lord, they believe, has called them from their homeland, out from the land of fire, and he will bless them and make them prosper, just as he promised Abraham.

Tilson Schumate a few hours after his rescue

As of this afternoon, the Holy Fire has burned over 4,000 acres, and is zero percent contained. Cal Fire has taken the lead on battling the flames, with help from the O.C. Fire Authority, Riverside Fire Authority, O.C. Sheriff, U.S. Forestry Service, and a number of firemen from across the U.S.

One structure has been destroyed, according to Cal Fire spokesman Steve Rasmussen, and there have been no reported civilian injuries as of this morning.

Capt. Tony Bommarito of the O.C. Fire Authority said he would be requesting more supplies to fight the fire. Today, there are fixed wing aircraft dropping fire retardant on the flames, and five helicopters dropping water to prevent the spread of the fire. However, higher temperatures and lower humidity today will make battling the flames a challenge. “Today will be the day we figure out what this thing’s gonna do,” said Bommarito.

Fire crews investigating haven’t released a cause of the fire, but it is likely due to the expansive heatwave oppressing California, and striking brush fires across the state.  President Trump has already declared a state of emergency in California, and Governor Brown has reached out for more assistance.  As of today, 16 major fires have set California ablaze, as more than 14,000 firefighters work tirelessly to save the Golden State.

“We have to re-examine the way we manage our forests, the way we build our houses—how we build them, where we build them—and how much we invest in our fire protection services,” Governor Jerry Brown remarked this weekend.

Orange County residents hope the Holy Fire won’t reach the level of the 2008 Sylmar fire, which forced 20,000 residents to be evacuated. 600 homes were damaged in the Sylmar fire, including homes near the base of Holy Jim Canyon. Meanwhile, fire crews continue to battle the fire as it creeps over the crest of the Santa Ana mountains toward the Ortega Highway, and Riverside County.

Capt. Rourke Oakland of the Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department eating a meal at Cook’s Corner after hours of battling the flames.

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