On the evening of February 6, a wildfire ravaged the community of Swall Meadows just south of Mammoth. Fueled by winds sustained at 50 miles per hour, with gusts whipping up to as much as 100 mph, things quickly took a disastrous turn. By morning, 40 homes and 7,000 acres of land were destroyed on the majestic hillside that lies in the shadow of the towering Wheeler Crest. By most all accounts, including that of Mono County Supervisor and former Long Valley Fire Chief Fred Stump: “This wasn’t a fire — this was a firestorm.” Among the homes lost was that of iconic surfboard shaper (and recent snowboard designer) Chris Christenson of the eponymous Christenson Surfboards.
Christenson, who now spends more time in the Eastern Sierra as opposed to his Cardiff home, says he got a text from a Mammoth friend informing him there was some kind of fire near his property.
“I didn’t think a whole lot of it because there has always been little spot fires here and there around the area. Then I get another text, and another. Then my friend Andrew Mariner, who works for Billabong in the snow department, called me from Europe pretty frantic because his wife’s parents have a place up here too.”
Needless to say, from San Diego there wasn’t much Chris could do that night, the least of which was to get any sleep. “As soon it was morning, I started driving up as fast as I could, not really knowing the status of anything,” he explains. “By the time I got to Lone Pine, I got a call from a firefighter friend of mine. It’s was just like something out of the movies. ‘You might want to pull over… I don’t have good news’
“To lose your home — it’s surreal and it’s nothing I could ever explain.”
Christenson has shaped boards for the past 23 years, and over the course of his career found snowboarding as an outlet from the hectic life of the Southern California surf industry in which he is so firmly rooted. In 2013, he was finally able to make it happen and dropped into a modest pad in picturesque Swall Meadows, a community of just a couple hundred people about 20 minutes south of Mammoth.
“I became a born-again snowboarder in 2008,” Christenson says. “I just got hooked on riding pow and would time the storms so I could hit the swell first and then follow the storm as it hit land and ride pow up here.”
He tells me that the past couple of years he has spent at least half his time up here. “This wasn’t my occasional place, this was home.”
And he’s right — looking around, it is surreal. There is a definite energy that surrounds the land hammering in the reality of impermanence. But while it is assured that things eventually fade away, they don’t just disappear over night.
What’s left is rubble, a twisted mess of ash and metal which he carefully walks around recalling what was where and how he always had a place for things. “Yep, there’s my water bottle right next to my bed. There should be a gun right around here too…”
Apart from his house, Christenson’s garage stands unaffected by the blaze.
“But my shaping room survived,” he exclaims before wryly adding, “so, I guess I still have to work when I come up.”
I can sense that once he gets power restored to the unfinished walls and concrete floor of this 150 square foot space he’ll be a happy man.
“It’s cool because when I step into my little man cave here it doesn’t feel like anything is gone. It’s a little tiny thing but I don’t need much.”
But in the end this isn’t a story about Chris Christenson. This is a story about our climate. This community stands at 7,000 feet here and it’s February. There should be two feet of snow on the ground and instead there’s nothing but dry brush — was dry brush.
“This is a much bigger problem than my home,” he says. “This is a climate thing and sadly, if things don’t change another event like this is very likely.”
He is referring to the devastating drought that has stricken California for the past four years.
“It’s just a reminder about how we all need to get involved on one level or another and let our voice be heard about climate change”
Somewhat fittingly, Chris is wearing a Protect Our Winters hoodie.
So what’s next?
“I’m going to rebuild.”
“To see how strong these people have been and hearing the stories of these firefighters… it has really done something to me,” he concludes. “After this experience, I actually want to live here more.”
If you would like to help the Community of Swall Meadows, please visit thesheetnews.com.
The photo above was provided courtesy of Jim Stimson. For more of the Crowley Lake-based photographer’s work, be sure to visit his website.