Hunters fire

Hunters fire in Mariposa County grows to 1,300 acres; 20 percent contained

aibarra@mercedsunstar.comMay 27, 2014 

— A fire near the south shore of Lake McClure had grown to 1,300 acres by Tuesday evening and threatened about 100 homes.

The Hunters fire, which broke out Monday afternoon, was 20 percent contained as of a 7:15 p.m. Cal Fire update Tuesday. More than 600 firefighters were battling the blaze.

Five injuries have been reported. Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said a firefighter rolled an ankle but the injury is not serious. Another injury involved an inmate firefighter who was hurt by a chain saw. The inmate firefighter was flown to a Modesto hospital for treatment. Information on the other injuries was not available.

The fire has destroyed two unoccupied homes and one outbuilding. Authorities have closed Hunters Valley, Bear Valley and Cotton Creek roads. Light winds helped firefighters make headway on Tuesday, but as evening approached the gusts were picking up again, Cal Fire said.

The Mariposa County Sheriff’s Department issued an evacuation order for residences in the area along Hunters Valley Road. Evacuation centers have been set up at the Mariposa Fairgrounds and at McKay Hall, 2820 Highway 140 in Catheys Valley.

However, according to Cal Fire officials, it seems most people are opting to seek shelter at the homes of friends or family members.

As of Tuesday afternoon, four people had made their way to McKay Hall.

One of the first to arrive at the shelter was Janet Kirkland, 69. She left her house almost immediately after receiving an evacuation notice from the Sheriff’s Department about 8 p.m. Monday.

Kirkland said she knew about the fire but did not realize how bad it had gotten until her daughter called to ask about it. “I walked outside after she called and, sure thing, there was this huge reddish, brownish, nasty-looking plume,” Kirkland said.

“I almost tipped over backward because it looked like it was right above my house, so when I was told to evacuate, I had no ifs or buts,” she added. “I just grabbed my two little doggies, my most important papers, my cameras and my cellphone and got out of there.”

Kirkland’s neighbor Christel Belrichard, 69, also spent the night at McKay Hall. Belrichard’s top concern was her livestock. “I panicked,” Belrichard said. “My husband had just left on a business trip, and I had no idea what to do and where to go.”

“My first reaction was to call 911, and they sent animal control to pick up my horses,” she continued. “Luckily, I heard of this place through word of mouth, so I grabbed my dogs and my essentials and ended up here.”

Belrichard said that no matter how prepared you think you are for disasters, your mind goes blank in a rushed moment of panic.

“Now that I think about it, there are so many things I wish I had brought,” Belrichard said. “What if the place really burns down? But at the moment, you can’t even think. All I remember is that I saw a lot of smoke and that my mouth went dry.”

Evacuated residents said they are not allowed to re-enter their homes until further notice.

But according to American Red Cross volunteer Sandy Theile, they will find all the basics for survival at the shelters. “We can offer a cot and blankets; we also give them a comfort kit, which has toothpaste, toothbrush and all the personal needs that you don’t think to take right away,” Theile said. “We feed them three meals a day, so the basics are here.”

Theile said McKay Hall can accommodate about 50 people, if needed.

Mona Lotspeich, 59, stayed at the Mariposa Fairgrounds on Monday, then drove with her husband to Catheys Valley on Tuesday morning.

“We could have probably stayed at our house longer, but when you can start smelling the smoke, it’s probably a good idea to leave,” Lotspeich said.

She said she took only what was most valuable to her: her guitar, two dogs, one cat and one baby chick.

Her animals are being cared for at the shelter by the Fresno-based Central California Animal Disaster Team.

Naomi Flam, president and founder of the CCADT, said the team arrived at McKay Hall late Monday night to provide assistance with all the animals present. “Animals become very stressed and protective in situations like these, especially because most are not used to being caged,” Flam said, “but we’re here to help people with their pets, and help the pets keep calm.”

Flam said the team will stay on scene until people are given the green flag to go back home.

Evacuees said they cannot wait to return to their homes, but are thankful they have somewhere to spend the night.

“They’re taking really good care of us here, and our pets are being cared for, too,” Kirkland said. “We’ve heard it’s going to be at least one more day, tonight and tomorrow, but for the moment, this is home, sweet home.”

The cause of the Hunters fire has not been determined.

Also Tuesday, firefighters knocked down a 50-acre blaze dubbed the Lake fire, which broke out late in the morning near Highway 132 and Lake Road in the Stanislaus County community of La Grange. According to a Cal Fire update, crews stopped the spread of the fire and were continuing with mop-up in the late afternoon.

With California undergoing two straight years of drought, fire officials have been warning people to take extra care around the dry brush that covers much of the foothills.

The recent hot weather and low humidity have led to even more dangerous conditions. Though it’s early in the year for wildfires, state fire officials said with the drought, wildfire season never ended last year.

Modesto Bee Breaking News Editor Patty Guerra contributed to this report.

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