NORTH FORK – As residents in the Cascadel Woods and Douglas Ranger Station areas move out following this morning’s mandatory evacuation notice, firefighters have been rolling in. Their job is to go to each home and prepare it to be defended in the event that the Willow Fire does come through.
Firefighters are moving flammable debris away from homes including firewood, leaves, trash, dry vegetation and anything that may be receptive fuels for flying embers.
They are also limbing up trees to remove ladder fuels that may allow flames to catch low-hanging branches and travel into the crowns of trees.
“We are doing what we can to prepare things around these structures so that they can be defended,” says Captain Shawn Pattison of Kern County Fire, whose team is assigned to the Structure Protection group working along Peckinpah Acres Drive.
Pattison and his Strike Team arrived on the Willow Fire on Saturday night, just hours after it started. A Strike Team is a group of five engines, with three firefighters on each engine, with a Strike Team Leader, and usually a Strike Team Leader trainee.
While they are tasked with eliminating fuels from around homes, they also don’t want to devastate the landscaping, so they try to strike a happy medium when limbing trees and removing vegetation.
Part of the job of the Structure Protection group is making choices about whether or not a home is defensible, or whether it will need to be left to its fate.
Don Bier, Battalion Chief with Fresno City Fire and 26-year veteran of the fire service, is a Strike Team Leader and says that people need to keep everything that could catch fire away from their house.
“There are folks that keep their property fairly tidy,” says Bier. “Those are the ones where we can go in, do a little more prep work, cut a line around it, and they’re defendable. If you’ve got an old trailer parked right up against your house, we have no way to move that. You want a good defensible space all the way around.”
When asked whether his crew would use valuable time tackling a cluttered property that has not been properly cleared, Bier has a ready answer.
“If we come to a house that’s not defendable, we’re going to leave it,” says Bier. “People have to help themselves; we can’t do it all. So if they choose to live this lifestyle in this type of interface [Wildland Urban Interface], you’ve gotta be heads-up. And if not, those are the consequences you have to accept. It doesn’t do any good to get anybody hurt. I’m responsible for seventeen guys here, and they all want to make it home safe.”
Time is of the essence and resources are limited, so they must be utilized where they will do the most good and have the best chance for success.
“If the fire does come through we’ll stage an engine at every one of these residences that we’ve prepped and we know we can protect,” says Bier.
As crews do structure protection along Cascadel Drive, bulldozers are carving out fireline from Forest Road 8S09 (Autumn Ridge Way) to tie in with the line they reopened earlier this week from the 2001 North Fork Fire.
They are also prepping structures on Douglas Ranger Station Road and removing snags and brush from along the roadway.
Sheriff’s deputies have gone door to door, making sure everyone has evacuated. They mark each driveway with a tan-colored notice that has a big “X” on it, to indicate that these residents have been contacted and have left the home.
If people refuse to leave, they put up a red notice, that says “Refusal to leave” on the bottom. They take information from those who refuse, so that they can notify next of kin should the worst happen. The Sheriff’s Office says only a handful of people have refused to evacuate.
Having residents heed the warning and head for safer ground not only protects them, their families and their pets, but also provides clear and safe access for fire equipment and gives law enforcement one less thing to worry about. It also eliminates you from the list of people who may have to be rescued, thereby endangering the lives of those doing the rescuing and taking resources away from the battle against the fire.
Forest Service, Fire Service and Sheriff’s Office law enforcement personnel are patrolling all evacuated areas to ensure that no one who is not authorized to be there can take advantage of the situation to commit any unlawful acts while homeowners are away.
Cascadel Road (Road 233) is closed at Road 225, and Douglas Ranger Station Road is closed just past the entrance to the Incident Command Post. Gentle Way and Willow Canyon Drive also remain closed, along with Central Camp Road between Road 274 and Beasore.
The American Red Cross of the Central Valley has opened a shelter to assist residents affected by the ongoing Willow Fire at the Oakhurst Community Center, 39800 Road 425B.
Red Cross volunteers will provide lodging, meals, hygiene kits and more for the evacuated families. The Central California Animal Disaster Team will be on scene to care for pets.