Apprehension, then boredom for Mariposa fire evacuees

jjardine@modbee.comJune 19, 2013 

B1_P0618_A1FIRE_MAN

Large plumes of smoke from the Carstens fire block the sun Monday. The blaze near Midpines is the biggest of several early-season fires in the region.

CHRISTOPHER WINTERFELDT — MERCED SUN-STAR

— Fear came first.

"When we evacuated, you could see the flames shooting 300 feet high," Mariposa County resident Gerald Hunter said. "It looked like it was only about a half-mile away."

Next, after shuttling 16 horses, some chickens and rabbits, and 11 dogs to various safe places, apprehension set in. Would the home he and wife Dolores own — on property members of her pioneer family homesteaded roughly 150 years ago — survive Mariposa County's Carstens fire?

Finally, with the answer to that being a resounding "yes!" came the boredom. For more than three days, they had little to do other than to check on their boarded animals, read newspapers and get to know their newest best friends at the Red Cross emergency shelter.

"The worst part now is that my wife can't watch her soap opera," Gerald joked. "She's been watching 'General Hospital' for 50 years. She's not happy about that."

Talk about a range of emotions … .

The Hunters were among nearly three dozen Mariposa County residents who holed up in Mariposa Elementary School's multipurpose room after the Carstens fire on Sunday began cutting its raging and wind-aided swath through the foothills about 13 miles away.

Those living in the Lushmeadow area were allowed to go home Tuesday night. Others, though — the Hunters included — had to wait until Cal Fire and the Mariposa County Sheriff's Department proclaimed Triangle Road open as of 8 p.m. Wednesday.

So not only were they still sleeping on cots — Red Cross officials brought in some upgraded models — they pretty much had the place to themselves by midweek. In fact, as I chatted Wednesday morning with Gerald Hunter, he and napping Dolores were the only evacuees in the building at the time. The few other remaining guests had ventured out for the day.

Otherwise, the dozen or so people in the room all were Red Cross employees or volunteers.

A quick update that probably will be outdated by the time you read this: Officials said the fire is 40 percent contained. A fire that started Sunday and was blamed on an unattended campfire has burned up 1,621 acres and with it, $1.7 million spent on 1,223 firefighters and support personnel, heavy equipment and aircraft. None of the 150 homes threatened was destroyed or even damaged, officials said.

Other than firetrucks and off-duty firefighters in town, there were few other signs of a fire in the area — and certainly little to suggest one that big.

Because the town of Mariposa sits in a ravine, residents of the Gold Rush-era community couldn't see or even smell the smoke from the fire about 13 miles away by midday Wednesday. The wind blew it southward.

Even so, officials warned evacuees not to panic if the smoke returned. They planned to set backfires to eliminate areas that had escaped the flames but still posed a threat to homes should the winds shift again, the Cal Fire's Tina Rosa said.

"We don't want them to panic if they see the smoke from the backfires," she said. "This time, it's a good thing. (Officials) are optimistic, and they are never optimistic. They want to button it up."

And the Hunters were ready to go home. Certainly, they were grateful to the Red Cross for providing the food, shelter and even finding them places to shower.

"One of the most interesting things is that we've met a lot of neighbors we never knew," Gerald Hunter said, adding that it isn't unusual, since the house next door might be a couple of miles away. "We met a woman from Germany, from where my wife's relatives came from (Baden Baden)."

Because the area is so rural, he seemed surprised they hadn't done some shelter time before. Dolores' kin — six Zimmerman brothers — came to the area in 1852 and each homesteaded a section (640 acres), he said. Their descendants eventually sold off all but the 40 acres the Hunters own.

"We've never had a fire at our property," Gerald said. And they still haven't. Their land came through unscathed, thanks to the expertise and diligence of the firefighting crews.

Their animals received the tender loving care they deserved at the fairgrounds and the SPCA shelter. By tonight, they should all be back home, safe and sound.

And as for "General Hospital," here's what Dolores missed Tuesday and Wednesday:

"Carly gets an earful about her bad choices from Sonny; Taylor and TJ are heating up … Patrick is convinced to take a DNA test by Sabrina; Luke's test results are ready."

It's the least we could do.

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