OAKHURST – It’s one of those “where were you when…” moments: where were you when the Courtney Fire started?
In the midst of a dreamy nap on Sunday, Sept. 14, a phone call came alerting us to a fire that would ultimately destroy 30 homes and leave hundreds of residents displaced. The Courtney Fire tore through neighborhoods with destructive force, as the battle to save lives and property was waged on land and in the air.
Photos by Virginia Lazar. Click on images to enlarge.
From the moment the phone rang around 2 p.m., until nine hours later, I didn’t leave my seat at the computer. Updates on the 320-acre blaze were coming fast and furious, much as the fire itself was raging up the hill around Road 426 toward the ridge at Bass Lake Heights, then speeding down the the mountain, all the way to the lake.
So, it wasn’t until two days later that photographer friend Virginia Lazar and I were able to venture out and see for ourselves what was going on.
We started at the Oakhurst Community Center, the designated shelter for those who’d been displaced by the fire. At a Wednesday morning meeting with residents, Cal Fire and the Sheriff’s Office shared with citizens the details of what was now going to be the beginning of recovery: a few at a time, homeowners would be shuttled up the hill to streets now scarred by flames, to see for the first time what had actually happened to their homes.
The Red Cross had arrived, along with other organizations and people whose mission is to heal the deep wounds left in the aftermath of disaster, whether it’s wading through the inevitable red tape of insurance adjustments, or the intense grief of having lost a home, a pet, a trove of memories, and a sense of security that was already tested before this particular fire even started.
It’s been one long summer of fires. Friends have evacuated so many times they don’t even unpack their cars anymore. The kids have had fire days off school when last year there were barely any snow days.
There’s been a major fire incident on a regular basis, so many now that we have trouble recalling their names and their start dates. They all blend into one torched, troubling time: French and Junction, Bridge, Pines, Meadow and all the activity around Jean Road West. Other friends say every time they evacuate, they take less and less, realizing ultimately, how little really matters when your life may be at stake.
This Courtney Fire is the worst in terms of loss, and the community outpouring for the survivors has been abundant. Now begins the rebuilding process, whether that means physically rebuilding or not. People are still in shock. As they begin to sift through the documentation and business of disaster, they will literally sift through the ashes to find any small, precious thing that’s been spared from the flames.
Miraculously, once again we were spared loss of human life, although four firefighters were injured, and many people lost pets, which is oftentimes equal in heartbreak to that of losing a spouse or human best friend.
We talked to four women who had survived the fire. Their homes were intact, fortunately, yet each had a story worth telling, as do all of those who were evacuated, along with the men and women who fought the fight.
Anne knew her house was still standing; a yellow cabin on Manzanita Drive. She was watching her daughter’s two dogs at the time she was suddenly told to leave.
Kathy was down in Fresno for a short two hours when the fire started, hence the mod outfit of casino t-shirt, pedal pushers and tennis shoes – just what you’d wear to run errands in the city on a Sunday.
Ida’s husband was non-ambulatory, so it took a lot to get him out of the house, and he eventually was checked into the hospital in order to accommodate his special needs.
Despite the fact that it had been two nights since they’d had to leave their homes, at least they knew they had homes. Virginia took their picture: still standing.
Patti Hummel was also at the meeting. She’s the president of the Bass Lake Heights Mutual Water Co. – a volunteer position – and is professionally employed with the engineering group of a local resort. They have three deep wells on Forest Service land, along with a two tank farms, all in the burn area.
About a week before the fire, I was talking with my neighbor in Coarsegold, and he mentioned the stellar deliciousness of the water pumped up from the wells at Bass Lake Heights. I did not know this. Once you talk to people, it’s instantly confirmed: the water there is something to write home about.
Much of the electrical that’s part of their well system was burned in the fire, and Patti’s main goal was to get the water turned back on so that residents would have water to return to.
Explaining that about 70 percent of the roughly 100 hook-ups to the water system at Bass Lake Heights are vacation rentals, Patti was busy fielding phone calls and already arranging for grants to assist in the future repairs.
Working with water district VP Mark Heyne who was already on-site in the burn area, and contractor Mark Wallow, the day was about assessment and rebuilding.
Patti had been evacuated also, though with phone calls coming in so frequently that her phone needed extra charging, she hadn’t had time to process her own feelings. It’s amazing what adrenaline can do.
It was interesting to see, adjacent to the Community Center, the large, open room set up strictly to house the pets of people displaced by the fire, mostly dogs by the time we got there, though we heard rumors of cats and birds that had been housed for a while early on.
In Oakhurst, the disaster aid assistance for pets was headed up by Naomi Flam, founder and president of the Central California Animal Disaster Team. We learned about “co-location.” That’s when people and their pets are housed on the same grounds, in different buildings at a mutual evacuation location.
The Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006 was made law after research following Hurricane Katrina showed that a big percentage of people will refuse to evacuate a disaster scene if they can’t take their pets with them. Ask around with your friends, and you’ll see how many people feel this way about their beloved creatures. The PETS act ensures disaster plans in counties must have a co-location plan for evacuees where they can have their pets nearby in the event of a disaster, if they want a shot at FEMA funds in the future. Service animals are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Virginia met a couple whom we thought may have needed a place to stay, since their rented home had been destroyed, and she offered them use of her trailer on the property she shares with her husband and son.
The couple had taken their two dogs with them when they fled the scene of the inferno, and later their two adult cats were found in good condition and everyone was reunited.
Inside the pet area were volunteers providing pet supplies including litter, leashes, food and other items provided by local businesses like Oakhurst Feed, along with help from the disaster team.
Finally it was time to leave the Community Center and head up into the area that had been burned by the Courtney Fire. Up Road 426 we crossed into the area that was still closed to the public at that time. We were a couple of hours ahead of the first caravans of residents coming to view their damage and destruction – a special tour one would never want to take, but which must be endured.
We saw the way the burned area resembled a checker board, with some houses destroyed while others were still standing. Everywhere we looked crews were working, getting thing things cleared and repaired to facilitate the initial steps of rebuilding and repopulating the neighborhood.
Fire crews were still out working, along with crews from Sierra Tel, PG&E, private contractors and County animal control.
Not long after our arrival, we were met by Cal Fire Public Information Officer (PIO) Captain Frank Bigelow Jr., who helped us understand the bleak, mostly colorless landscape we were witnessing.
He pointed out that most of the homes in the Bass Lake Heights area are situated under beautiful trees, and that many neighbors had endeavored to remove ladder fuels in compliance with proper clearance guidelines: the trees may have been well “limbed up,” with snags and branches removed.
But when the flames roared through Bass Lake Heights a hundred feet above the tops of the trees, ladders or no ladders, those trees burned, exploded and spread the flame out as far as half-a-mile ahead.
Some homes had defensible space in the form of concrete in their favor, as compared with others that were less lucky and torched when the trees above them exploded.
Captain Bigelow explained a phenomenon where heat radiates ahead of the fire with such force in its superheated gasses that it sucks any slight amount of remaining moisture out of the trees and anything else made of wood. Zero moisture remains.
Firefighters really put themselves out in the initial attack on the fire, the Captain said, doing everything they could and even putting themselves in harm’s way trying to save as much of the neighborhood as possible.
The PIO told us about a Captain, a friend of his, who was working the fire and whose engine was about to move on from a residence, when a couple stepped out from inside that very house. The firefighters hurried to evacuate the couple when the husband dashed to the back of the house without warning, leaving his wife and the firefighters behind.
The Captain who was in charge asked the wife where her husband had gone, and she pointed to the back of the house. By the time the Captain got to the rear, he was faced with an approaching wall of flames and the man hollering, “My Jeep, I have to get my Jeep!”
The firefighters saved the husband and wife, getting them safely out of the way just in the nick of time, and in the process, the Captain suffered some smoke inhalation, began coughing, and was ordered to the hospital. Later, he was cleared for duty and will probably be back to fighting fires before I’ve even finished writing this story. Such is the way of valor.
The Courtney Fire burned with fierce intensity, evidenced by what was left, or rather what was not left behind. Plastic fencing melted in place and cooled, now deflated on the ground. Stumps still smoldered like underground geysers. Chimneys stood proudly as if they alone, knowing fire, had been prepared. No birds sang.
We currently have the lowest moisture level in the recorded history, and as the Courtney Fire followed the topography of the mountain up to the ridge, it arrived in a flash to center-punch Bass Lake Heights, said Captain Bigelow.
We’re in a different time right now, he explained, where the fire season has run this year from January until the present moment, and will continue into the fall or winter, time as yet unknown. We haven’t seen this kind of intense fire behavior before, where there’s a major incident followed by a major incident and so on. Wildfire Awareness Month is in October for a reason: that’s often the busiest month for fighting fires here in the west.
Finally, Captain Bigelow urged residents to proceed with caution and awareness, reminding us that over 6,000 firefighters were deployed that day alone on 12 major wildland fires in California. Cal Fire has battled 4,800 wildland fires so far this year.
Walking out through the burned zone, we ran into Mark Heyne, the VP of the Bass Lake Heights water company who was turning off the water to homes in anticipation of the day soon when the wells would run again.
Just as Virginia and I were leaving the area, a firefighter from the Fresno crew called us over, asking if we’d like to take a picture of what was in a medium sized cardboard box that was propped up in the big red fire truck. Expecting a piece of pottery, or in the most exciting scenario maybe a snake or a fancy rock, I was shocked to see a small grey kitten splayed out, no bigger than a glasses case, limp and alive.
He told us he’d been waiting for a few hours for animal control to come, and that he’d pulled the kitten out from under a mobile home in the near distance. We’d seen a man from County animal services looking earnestly for some chickens that had been reported in need of rescue, back when we first arrived, but communication being difficult in emergency situations, signals may have been crossed; he didn’t know about the kitten.
The little one’s whiskers were singed and pulled up into what looked like a crazy little handlebar mustache, and her paws were blistered, along with a place on her side where she must have brushed up against an errant ember. The kitten did not look long for this world, she was weak and while she’d had some water, it was still over a hundred degrees out that day and she was parched from the inside out and burned from the outside in.
Our own big family cat Milo, who moved with us from the city eight years ago, had gone missing in recent months, suspected of failure to outrun a coyote. I had turned down offers of kittens and it was becoming obvious I’d been waiting for one hot, dehydrated little waif in particular.
We decided to take the kitten to the vet. Virginia walked away and returned to the scene with her car – air conditioning blasting full force – and as I held the wee kitten in the palm of one hand in front of the cool air, she stopped moving suddenly as if an angel whispered into her soft, singed little ear, “you’ll be alright.”
Arriving at Hoof n’ Paw, where Virginia and I both take our various pets anyway, the staff was more than helpful and immediately diagnosed that she was in fairly good health considering her issue: between 3 – 5 weeks old and having survived a fire. They gave her some fluids under the skin, and some food that she attacked so ravenously her sharp little teeth threatened the dish it was served in. This little gal – it turned out she was female – was a survivor, no doubt. The really great folks at Hoof ‘n Paw elected to donate their services to the presumably orphaned kitty and we thank them for that.
For three days after that, my family, friends and I watched the kitten at home to see if she would make it in the long run. Aunt Virginia asked for updates, Aunt Noella babysat while I ran out. The kitten only weighed 8 ounces! Her back foot was particularly sore, but each day she has grown a little stronger and wandered a little further from what seemed like her permanent perch on my ample chest. A tiny mew escapes her when she has to pee, or poop or is hungry. It’s like having a baby again, and throughout those days everything I wore or touched carried with it the scent of wet kitten food. Aunty Colette gave us the food.
Today was the first day I felt certain the kitten would survive in the long-run, and knew I had to let someone know, in case anyone was looking for her. We had fostered her and now was the time to contact authorities. I called Madera County and was just about to send a lost cat notice in when Virginia called me with what seems like a mini-miracle: she’d found the kitten’s owner by accident. It was the woman who had been scheduled to stay in Virginia’s trailer but had made other arrangements, and as they talked about what she’d been through, the talk of kittens came up. She said she’d lost some kittens in the fire and when she learned of the location and description of the little charred kitty, she realized it had been her own and was happy to find that the kitten had found a good home.
I wanted to call the kitten Kevin Reynolds after the kind-hearted firefighter who saved her, but my daughter protested mightily, making a list of acceptable names. Lucky, Smokey, Ash – they were all in the running, along with Courtney, as a favorite. We are a family who saddles animals with people names, hence, our dog is Jack and our cat is Nick. Jack and Nick, meet Charlotte the little kitten charred in the Courtney Fire.
As each day has passed, and Charlotte has gotten stronger, more has been revealed about the losses from the Courtney Fire. With a small town and 30 houses gone, everyone knows someone who has lost everything, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Beyond our own homes, up and down the state, fire burns. We are grateful for the support of every first responder and every person behind the scenes, and for the tremendous force that is a community coming together post-catastrophe.
Where were you when the Courtney Fire broke out?
Everyone has a story. This was ours. We hope to hear yours.