On the first day of August 2021, we spent the weekend celebrating Mike Michalak’s birthday with most of our family. Mike’s two grandsons, his oldest son, and his daughter-in-law were in town, and they had hit the links and enjoyed some wonderful golf, fun, and food. Mike had turned 75 on Saturday, and we were all in a celebratory mood and feeling happy about life.
The Antelope Fire
Fast forward to Sunday morning at 10:30 a.m. when we heard about the Antelope Fire, a new fire that had just started near Antelope Creek Ranch (ACR). Living in California and being used to fires constantly springing up everywhere, this new blaze didn’t seem like a particularly big deal. We didn’t even talk about the fire until I arrived at work on Monday morning and Pat Pendergast mentioned it and had the CalFire map on his computer screen. Still, with the Tennant Fire having threatened that area of California and the ranch just a few weeks prior, and with fires in our area of the world becoming commonplace the past several years (Carr Fire, Camp Fire, Herz Fire, Delta Fire, etc.), we went about our day, like we typically do, with the assumption that CalFire or the National Forest Service would take care of it.
That Monday we had campers showing up to Antelope Creek Ranch to start a week of FishCamp™. We weren’t concerned to keep the camp going, as the fire hadn’t grown and was still miles from the property. The FishCampers and their parents arrived for drop-off around noon. But only hours later, in early afternoon, we received an evacuation warning, and we took action. We had our camp counselors quietly and efficiently load up every child and their belongings and bring them back to Redding to be picked up by their parents. Our view at the time was, “better safe than sorry.”
By Tuesday morning not much had changed, and we were still monitoring the maps and watching. With bombers dowsing the fire from Klamath Falls, a CalFire team positioned nearby, and our friend Anne (who works for CalFire) keeping us apprised of the activity, it was just another day at the shop. The day progressed with little change, except that more firefighters were being called in to gird the structures and the town of Tennant. The town is tiny yet there were several homes and buildings they were trying to protect. As Tuesday proceeded, the winds began to escalate and cause the fire to grow rapidly. The CalFire crew at this time had moved onto Antelope Creek Ranch and took a position at our FishCamp™ area to combat and protect the ranch. They were also trying to stop the northeast movement of the fire.
On Wednesday all hell broke loose. Mike Michalak had started his day with a text from Sig, the ranch caretaker and manager, asking Mike to bring some supplies and the compressor for the fire truck. Sig had already used the fire truck to foam all the walls of the buildings and was planning on hitting them again if necessary. But two hours into his drive to the ranch, Mike received a call from Sig that he and CalFire had had to evacuate the property after being chased off by the fire. Grabbing everything he could reach at a moment’s notice, Sig jumped in his truck and raced down the gravel road as the fire was crowning through the trees all around them. Sig later recounted that he was driving 40 mph off the property, and the fire was overtaking them. Mike met up with Sig at the Highway 97 and Tennant Rd intersection, where Sig informed him that he thought everything was lost – a total devastation of the property and all the buildings destroyed. They proceeded to drive to Mount Shasta so they could talk and gather themselves. One can only imagine what was going through their minds on that one-hour drive.
Thursday morning we all woke up with heavy hearts. The thought of losing Antelope Creek Ranch was devastating to our family and TFS staff, not to mention the owners, Mike and Bertha Michalak. I met with the staff at the shop on Thursday morning to discuss how we would answer questions and move forward. The message was simple and true: We still didn’t know exactly what had occurred on the property, and until someone was physically able to see it, we decided against speculating or saying anything more. Bryan Quick and Chris King jumped into action, moving a three-day school from ACR to Oasis Springs Lodge and calling those anglers who were supposed to come to the ranch the following week. There was a lot to be done in a short time, and the team got it done.
Thursday evening I got a call from Mike after he had gotten word of what had occurred on the property, thanks to a family friend. The friend had asked his co-worker, a CHP officer, to visit the property and take a look. Mike, who hadn’t slept a wink and was in a state of despondency, got a phone call from his friend with the report, and he also received some photos the officer had taken while on the property. This was the first news we had received since the evacuation on Wednesday afternoon and fearing the lodge was a total loss.
While Mike was on the phone with his friend from the CHP, he heard wonderful news. The majority of the ranch had survived! Not only were buildings still standing, but the sprinkler system was working, and the officer heard the generator running. It should be noted that this was the first day after the fire had rushed through the ranch. The smoke was unbelievably thick, so you couldn’t see much, and several stumps were still on fire and smoking.
Mike and Bertha Michalak were notified late Thursday afternoon that they could be escorted onto the property Friday morning for two hours. Of course they jumped at the opportunity. Who wouldn’t? They were on the road from Redding at 5 a.m. that morning and were ready to see for themselves what had been reported, and they picked up Sig on the way. As they drove down smoke-filled Tennant Road (12 miles from Highway 97), the eerie feeling of loss and devastation was on their minds. Yet, they all had a spark of hope in their hearts.
As they pulled up to the entrance of the property, they noticed the mailboxes lying on the ground, as their posts had been burned out from beneath them. But the rock wall with the ranch’s name stood strong and proud. The gate was open, as CalFire had been on the property with their water trucks and fire team.
Immediately they noticed that homes adjacent to their property were no longer standing. Sadly for the neighbors, the fire had been devastating. Imagine that as your first view once you drive onto the property … it certainly didn’t give Mike and Bertha a lot of hope for their own buildings and structures.
It was an eerie and smoky drive up the gravel road toward the ranch house, but overall, the trees looked healthy and mostly unscathed, with only some scarring on the tops and bottoms. Many of the trees seemed largely untouched and unphased.
They experienced a surge of relief when they approached the ranch house, as it stood like a beacon of light with not a single burn mark. The grass was as green as it has always been, the Adirondack chairs still reclined in the lawn area by the fire pit, and cornhole boards were still stacked on the patio steps. Even the table umbrella was up without a mark, and flowers bloomed brightly in the driveway roundabout planter. It was an amazing feeling, giving Mike and Bertha an enormous sense of relief. The home had been spared!
The next stop was the guest suites and staff quarters. Taking a deep breath and jumping back into the truck, they headed up the driveway to turn south toward the shop and guest suites. Again, to their surprise, they could see all the guest suites, including the wood fencing, standing unharmed. Unbelievable! The shop, or what was left from the planned demolition, was also standing with no harm. The picnic area outside the guest suites was in perfect condition. This area has wood picnic table as well as wood chips, and amazingly it was all spared from the carnage.
They then headed to the FishCamp™ area of the property, which is down a short drive from the guest suites. The first sighting there was of a single FishCamp™ tent still standing. The white, canvas tent stood proudly among the trees. The other five tents had burned to the ground, damaging the platform structures as well as melting the tent poles. Per Mike, “The tents got so hot that the metal poles turned into spaghetti noodles.” Continuing up the path, the FishCamp™ cookhouse, appearing in the smoke, was also standing. Not a scratch or mark on it. How incredibly fortunate, Mike and Bertha said to each other. They couldn’t believe that this building was still in one piece.
They were running short of time for their two hours of inspection; there was still so much to put eyes on and not enough time left to see it all. They needed to head to Sig’s place, which overlooked the upper lake. Unfortunately, when they came around the corner, they saw the first major devastation on the property. Sig’s house had burned completely, and the roof had collapsed on the remaining ash. But fortunately, Sig got most of his personal belongings out before being evacuated, although he did lose some family memorabilia that can never be replaced as well as all the furniture and clothing. Sig is an avid cyclist, and luckily most of his bikes were in a culvert on the property that went unharmed. However, one of his best bikes was inside his home and didn’t make it through. The beautiful wooden deck that wrapped around the home was gone, but surprisingly two barbecues and two Adirondack chairs survived.
The last stop they made that day was at the historic red barn on the other side of the stream. If you’ve ever been to ACR you’ll remember this little barn. It had a lot of significance as the oldest building on the property. The more than 100-year-old structure and its contents had been turned to ashes. It is sad to think that we will never have another casting lesson in front of that barn. It was picturesque to say the least, and family members had taken pictures there for their Christmas Cards and personal use. Unfortunately, this barn can never be replaced.
By this time the Michalaks had to leave the property, as they had exhausted their two-hour window. Talk about an emotional roller coaster – thinking that everything was lost, then seeing pictures and hearing that some things still survived, to finally setting foot on the property to see the damage with their own eyes.
Saturday came with much optimism and thoughts of reopening the ranch and getting back to having fun at this outdoor fun center. Mike and Bertha got a call that day letting them know they could go back on Sunday, as the property was no longer in threat. Since there was still very little power and fires continue to linger, they couldn’t stay the night, but at least they could spend the entire day there.
Mike and Bertha, along with their long-time friend Bert, got in the truck early Sunday morning and headed back to ACR, again stopping in Mount Shasta to pick up Sig. Bert, a retired heavy equipment operator who has done work at the ranch in the past, was invited along to check out the heavy equipment and, if necessary, run it to clear roads.
This was a happy yet somber day. With more time on the ranch the team was able to see the entire property and evaluate what damage was truly done. All the equipment and vehicles, which Sig had parked in the meadow, were in perfect condition. The only loss was a tractor that had been inadvertently left in a forested patch. The bridge by the historic barn had been burned to the ground. They made it past this point and headed to the air strip. (Most guests to Antelope Creek Ranch have never been out to this part of the property.) Once arriving they found the vehicles on the runway were in perfect order, as were the fuel tanks. But the same could not be said of the hanger. It was burned badly and everything inside was a total loss. The maelstrom swept quickly through the largest, most heavily wooded and well-established parts of our ranch like a massive, controlled burn, leaving in its wake charred tree trunks and a denuded forest floor. Some distant and seldom-visited portions of woods on the ranch were completely destroyed.
Planning for the future
So, what is the plan for Antelope Creek Ranch? The plan is simple: We will be open for business again in the spring of 2022 (opening is generally around May 10). ACR will be back, with a bit of a facelift, and better than it was. That’s Mike’s promise to each and every guest. Although there are tough times ahead and a lot of work to be done, he and Bertha are eager to get started on the cleanup and rebuilding.
The ash should spark an abundance of spring wildflowers, and we expect our meadows to explode with lush growth this next spring and summer. We’re going to dedicate the remainder of the summer and fall to restoring the beauty of Antelope Creek Ranch, implementing an aggressive re-planting of the forest where necessary and finalizing some lake enhancement and stream restoration. The ranch house and guest suite complex look just as beautiful as they ever have, and with the “bad” will come new improvements. Mike said, “I feel like the Phoenix rising from the ashes and can’t wait to make it even better. When we open next May, guests can expect to encounter an Antelope Creek Ranch more beautiful than ever and the same superb fishing and lodge experience that’s built an incomparable reputation among discriminating fly anglers.”
by Terry Jepsen