OAKHURST – Residents evacuated from their homes due to the Courtney Fire gathered this morning at the Oakhurst Community Center to hear from Cal Fire and the Madera County Sheriff’s Office about when they might be able to enter the burn area, and what to expect next.
Battalion Chief Troy Cheek acknowledged those who had cleared defensible space, but said that sometimes Mother Nature just has her way.
“There hasn’t been structure loss like this in Oakhurst since the Harlow Fire,” said Cheek. “The firefighters did everything they could, but there couldn’t have been a worse case scenario for Bass Lake Heights than where that fire started.”
He also noted that while the dense pine tree forest makes the neighborhood beautiful, it also creates fire conditions that go beyond defensible space.
“That works for ground fires,” he said, “but with these drought conditions and densely packed trees, the fire gets into the canopies.”
Cheek asked the residents to “bear with us” as they work to get them back into their neighborhoods as soon as possible. But it is still Cal Fire’s responsibility to keep everyone safe.
“We know the impact this fire has had on the community,” he said. “But it would be a tragedy if we let people go back in and a tree falls on them.”
Hazard trees are being identified and removed today in the burn area, and crews from PG&E, Sierra Tel and several contractors, along with fire crews, are hard at work.
Damage assessment teams are also on the ground, going from house to house and cataloging whether a structure is standing, damaged or destroyed.
Incident Commander Rich Drozen told the residents that a process that would normally take three days is going to be completed in just a day-and-a-half, as part of their effort to get people back into their neighborhoods as soon as possible.
“We’ll gather the information, then bring you in one at a time and let you know what the status of your home is,” said Drozen. But first, he said, they want to make sure they get it exactly right. “We don’t want to tell you your home is okay, only to find that it isn’t; or tell you it’s destroyed if it’s still standing.”
Today at 2 p.m., sheriff’s deputies began transporting residents, a few at a time, up to the burn area to allow them to have a look at their properties. No one will be allowed to get out of the vehicle, but for many, it’s the not knowing that is so difficult. The Sheriff’s Office is requesting that only one person per family make the trip to allow time and space for others to do so.
Drozen warns, however, that if fire activity picks up, or another fire starts that draws away resources, the trips up to the burn area will be stopped.
Anyone who needs to retrieve pets or medications should contact the Sheriff’s Substation on Westlake Drive in Oakhurst and arrangements will be made.
Officials are also evaluating the possibility of reopening Road 222 along Bass Lake later today or tomorrow. Residents are cautioned to wait for official announcement of that, and not show up at road blocks asking to be let in. Cal Fire and the Sheriff’s Office are working very closely together to coordinate these releases, and SNO will post any official updates just as soon as they are received.
Lt. Tyson Pogue told the audience that the Sheriff’s Office has cancelled every single day off for every single deputy in the department, and they are all patrolling the evacuated area to ensure the safety and security of homes.
Some questions from the audience addressed the issue of MCAlerts. One resident said hers was delivered in Spanish. Madera County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Erica Stuart said they are still working out some bugs in the system, and that she herself has received the notification in Spanish. Stuart says if this happens to you, just press “1” (one) and it will switch to English.
For anyone who did not receive an alert even though they registered, please contact the Sheriff’s Office at 559-675-7770. More information is available, or you can register online at http://www.mcalert.org
Also, the Sheriff’s Office will be hosting events in the Oakhurst area in the coming days and weeks, and the public is encouraged to stop by to ask questions and to register. For more information, click here.
Another question came from a woman who said she cannot afford to have someone clear her property. She was advised to contact the Eastern Madera County Fire Safe Council for assistance in learning what resources are available in getting that done.
Some property owners were concerned about adjacent parcels with absentee owners who don’t clear defensible space. MMU Captain Frank Bigelow, Jr., explained that while notices are sent to those owners, they are given time to clear the space. If they don’t, they are sent another notice. After failure to comply and failure to pass a subsequent inspection, they are then issued a citation.
“It’s through no lack of trying on our part that these situations exist,” said Bigelow, who noted that some of these properties are owned by banks. “It’s the nature of the laws, and we have to follow them. If people want to change those laws, they will need to contact their representatives.”
Nancy Koerperich, Cal Fire Unit Chief, offered deepest condolences for what she called a “very emotional and significant event.”
“As firefighters, when we see flames, we want to put it out,” said Koerperich. “When we see an accident, we want to help. Folks did everything they could to clear defensible space, but this fire behavior was dangerous and extreme. With 200 foot flame lengths, firefighters were doing the very best they could.”
She also thanked the residents for their patience and for respecting the evacuations.
“We would have had lives lost if you hadn’t heeded the warnings,” she said. “It’s still a dangerous situation up there, and we want it to be safe before you return.”
Incident Commander Drozen also talked about defensible space, noting that if you live on a slope, the 100 foot minimum is not enough.
“100 feet is a minimum, and it’s for flat lands,” he said. “Fire runs uphill fast, and runs up drainages.” Fire also heats up and dries out everything ahead of it on a hill.
“With that superheated air, 100 feet is not enough on a hillside. Mother Nature has the upper hand.”
Drozen emphasized the severity of the dry conditions by sharing one man’s account of the loss of his home, where he described it as, “My house didn’t burn, it evaporated.”
He went on to commend the US Forest Service for their outstanding response and cooperation on this fire, even though it was in a State Responsibility Area.
“The Forest Service unloaded every resource they had to fight this fire,” he said. “They pulled people and equipment off the Meadow Fire and other fires, and made the heaviest resource commitment I have ever seen.”
As for what happens next on the Courtney Fire, Public Information Officer Jeremy Rahn urged everyone to wait for official notifications to be posted, and not to rely on what they read on various social media. There is rampant speculation and misinformation on people’s personal Facebook and Twitter Feeds, and Cal Fire asks people to wait for official releases.
As residents headed out of the Sheriff’s Substation to await their chance to witness the devastation for themselves, the folks at the Red Cross Center and the Central California Animal Disaster Team were busy tending to those in need at the Oakhurst Community Center.