It was less than an hour after Mike Sturzenacker returned home from his job as a contractor Thursday when his wife called him about a fire she had just heard about near where they lived on Golden Dove Lane in Jamestown.
Sturzenacker, 44, said he was sitting on the porch when he got the call sometime between 1 and 1:30 p.m. He looked around the corner toward Sonora in the direction where other recent fires have started at homeless encampments off Stockton Road.
“I could see some smoke over there, but not a lot, so I wasn’t super worried,” he said. “I then went around and checked the other side because I could hear sirens.”
That’s when Mike Sturzenacker saw the growing flames where the blaze that later became known as the Washington Fire originated near Highway 108 and Golf Links Road.
Mike Sturzenacker said he packed a quick bag with birth certificates, passports and other important items. When he ran out to check again, he found a wall of flame bearing down on him and the home he purchased with his wife more than six years ago.
“I got hit with flame retardant, grabbed my dogs and got in my truck,” he said. “I drove through fire and trees burning down to get out… I never imagined a fire like that before, it moved so fast.”
When he got out of the burning neighborhood, he realized that his oldest dog Charlie, a lab-pit bull mix he got around the same time he purchased the house, had jumped out of the truck at some point.
Mike Sturzenacker and his family still had yet to be allowed back into the neighborhood to look for Charlie or survey the damage, though he knew at the time that nothing would be left based on how bad the fire was raging.
“There was no doubt in my mind that my house was gone,” he said. “As I was still driving out, it was just chaos, everything was on fire.”
The Sturzenackers expect that they’ve lost everything except for their other dog, black lab named Lucky, and what Mike Sturzenacker was able to grab before he fled for his life. That included their boat and two vehicles, including his prized 1968 Camaro.
Mike Sturzenacker, whose wife, Sandra, works as the chief business officer at Sonora Elementary School, said the family has been staying with a family member’s home on Lime Kiln Road while they navigate the maze of paperwork associated with homeowners insurance.
“It’s a ridiculously long, complicated process,” he said. “We’re just finding our way to step one.”
The Sturzenackers’ sons Ethan, 17, who attends Sonora High School, and Eli, 10, who attends Sonora Elementary, were both in class when the fire broke out. Their daughter, Elise, 18, was at work and preparing for her first college volleyball game that was scheduled to take place Friday.
They have received an outpouring of support from the community with donations of food, clothes, other supplies, and more than $18,000 raised as of Friday through a GoFundMe set up by Sandra Sturzenacker’s sister, Aimee Schultz.
“It’s been crazy,” Mike Sturzenacker said. “There have been hundreds of calls and texts … It’s more than I can even comprehend.”
Mike Sturzenacker said he was born and raised in Tuolumne County and moved away for only about four years in his 20s, but he’s never been as close to a raging wildfire as he was on Thursday.
The speed and ferocity of how the blaze approached was “like supernatural, like unstoppable,” he said.
“Fire is the most powerful thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it or felt anything like it.
“It was eye opening … People should be ready, because it’s real, and it can take your house in less than three minutes.”
Another family who lost everything on Golden Dove Lane were the Englishes, whose home they have been renting for more than seven years burned to the ground in the fire that was last reported to be holding at 81 acres in size as of Friday afternoon.
Amanda English, 38, and her son, Liam, 4, left their home shortly after noon Thursday to pick up her older son, Owen English IV, 7, from Sonora Elementary School because he had gotten hurt.
They stopped at a store on the way home and came upon a roadblock at Highway 108 and Stockton Road because of the blaze.
“I went around Sonora and tried to get around Golf Links, but they wouldn’t let me anywhere near it,” she said.
Amanda English said she called her husband, Owen English III, 40, who was working in Sacramento for his job with Conifer Communications and rushed home as soon as he could.
The family’s three dogs, Loki, Jazibell and Skye, were in kennels and all perished in the blaze, along with their livestock that included chickens and ducks. Everything they owned except for what they were wearing at the time was also torched.
“Anytime I think about it I cry,” she said.
Their goal was to save up enough money to buy a place of their own, but now Amanda English said she and her husband are taking it “one step at a time.”
Amanda English said they were grateful for the outpouring of donations they have also received from the community, including clothes, toys for the kids, gift cards and a GoFundMe that had raised nearly $10,000 as of Friday.
“I’m still in shock and awe of everything people have donated and just so thankful,” she said. “I feel like this community definitely helps out when needed.”
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 768-5175.