This time of year the Sierra foothills’ grassy rangelands are the color of spun gold and studded with native blue oaks.
However, after the recent Detwiler Fire swept through Mariposa County, in some places the landscape looks like a war zone. Hills and ranches are charred, and grayish- black sticks protrude from the ground where chaparral or pines once stood. In the air faint wisps of smoke and the smell of fire linger.
Earlier this week, I drove up Old Toll Road for the first time since it re-opened. And mourned.
CalFire’s motto is “One less spark – one less wildfire.” Two miles east of Lake McClure, somebody’s spark made national headlines and caused over 60 families to lose their homes.
Hunters Valley and Bear Valley residents are accustomed to evacuating homes and businesses during fire season. But when fire came their way the afternoon of July 16, this wasn’t your typical summer wildfire.
Within the first hour, the CalFire unit chiefs knew outside resources were needed and a team would have to be formed for an extended attack.
Fire Behavior Analyst Tim Chavez explained that the Detwiler fire doubled in size every day for the first three days. Partly due to high winds and temperatures in the low 100s/high 90s, in addition to Mariposa’s difficult topography, tree mortality and abundance of fuel.
“An old fire captain told me, ‘The years during the drought can be bad, but the year to be concerned about is the year after,’” said Chavez.
With this year’s above-average amounts of rain, grass seed that’s been sitting in the soil for five years sprouted at once. Grasses and thistles grew to five and six feet tall.
“Within minutes a spot fire had crossed the Merced River and burned 500 acres,” he continued.
Close to 5,000 firefighters from all over California converged in Merced and Mariposa Counties. Each morning firefighters received written instructions for the day. The fire area comprised of six branches with 17 divisions working tirelessly.
At the community meeting held on July 20 at Merced Theatre, neighbors and strangers filled the room – all conversing like old friends.
Most in attendance had been evacuated, but some were there for relatives, seeing if they could get more information. The problem was, by the time the updates were made and the map was changed, the fire had already advanced and the most recent updates were no longer current.
Agency representatives who spoke expressed confidence in their crews and compassion for everyone affected.
Mariposa County Sheriff Doug Binnewies gave a shout out to all his peer sheriffs, the teams, officers and individuals supporting the incident. He also gave phone numbers to call regarding specific info needed by displaced residents. (And the Nixle app provides official notification texts.)
More than three dozen cooperating agencies have combined efforts and expertise to bring this fire under control and to turn those red lines on the fire map to black lines.
“I’ll say it again, our belongings can be replaced – our loved ones can’t,” Binnewies said.
PG&E sent in 130 employees and 180 contracted workers and established a base camp in the Mount Bullion area. More than 11,000 customers were without electricity for a couple days to almost a week. More than 200 poles had to be replaced in order to restore power.
Mariposa County Animal Control provided care for the animals left on properties when residents didn’t have time to make arrangements for relocation. Some homeowners spray painted their phone number on the sides of their horses, in case they wandered off.
Close friends of ours lost their home. Another friend’s house still stands, but the property surrounding the residence is black. Hundreds of evacuees wondered for days if their house had survived.
Not knowing is the hardest thing, most of them say.
For the first time in decades, the town of Mariposa was evacuated. Besides the fire damage Mariposa County has suffered, Yosemite was filled with smoke and vacationers’ plans were suddenly changed. Local hotels and tour companies spent hours last week canceling reservations and issuing refunds. Another hard hit for a community dependent on tourism.
All last week, the final thing we did before going to bed and the first thing we did each morning was step outside to look at the horizon. Was the smoke thicker, redder, blacker? And what direction had it moved? Even after packing up to stay with friends near Merced, my eyes were continually looking east.
“I understand this is a significant emotional event for you,” said Nancy Koerperich, unit chief with CalFire MMU. “I can assure you, it is for us as well.”
Almost two weeks later our sleepy ghost town is still wide awake with fire trucks and PG&E trucks heading up and down the road and helicopters flying overhead. The battle is almost over.
But the work of rebuilding has just started.
Debbie Croft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.