OAKHURST — Over 300 people gathered at the Mountain Christian Center tonight to hear from Cal Fire, the Incident Management Team and the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office, anxious to have their fears assuaged about what’s happening with the homes they evacuated in Mariposa County as the Detwiler Fire continues to burn.
With so many different agencies now cooperating on the fire, the Fire Management Team wanted to assure everyone that while they may all have different patches on their shoulders — such as Fresno Fire or San Bernardino — they’re all part of a team and when they show up here they are all our firefighters.
The Cal Fire Behavior Analyst told the crowd that with a bit lower temperatures today and calmer winds, there was a little less fire activity than yesterday. That said, firefighters are still dealing with 2- to 4-foot flame lengths in the grass, and up to 25 feet in the brush.
Temperatures are expected to be a few degrees cooler for the next few days, then things will heat up again over the weekend.
Mariposa County Sheriff Doug Binnewies recounted the fire’s timeline, beginning with its start on Sunday at about 4 p.m. as a report of vegetation fire in Hunters Valley.
“Our fire service recognized that area as one of concern,” said the Sheriff, “and we responded with a lot of equipment as well as our local law enforcement and our partners in the Hunters Valley community.
“Primarily, that’s an isolated, small community, with one way in and one way out, making it hazardous for the residents.”
The cause and origin of this fire is still under investigation, said Sheriff Binnewes, but it established itself very rapidly, threatening many residents in Hunters Valley. The Sheriff’s Office immediately requested additional deputies with their partners in the surrounding counties, and the CHP, and began to enact the response plan.
“Members of the community reacted immediately and got out of the way,” said Sheriff Binnewies. “We did lose several residences in Hunters Valley and it’s my belief that if the property owners had not reacted to the evacuation orders, they would have been in harm’s way.”
The Sheriff acknowledged that it’s inconvenient for residents to be indisposed, and noted that as of today, hundreds of residents remain under evacuation orders.
“This is fire behavior that I don’t think has been witnessed in many years,” Binnewies continued, “similar to the large Telegraph Fire in 2008 where we had 30 homes demolished by fire.”
When the fire began to threaten the town of Mariposa itself yesterday, the evacuation order went out.
“I believe it’s the first time I’ve seen that,” he said. “I know it’s a hardship for the community and for the business owners, but we just want to thank everyone for their cooperation. Today definitely looked different than on the previous days as far as suppression efforts. We’re not out of the woods yet, and we continue to displace people through evacuations.”
Even as the fire continues to grow, the Sheriff says authorities are already planning for repopulation.
“People do need to be patient as there is still an abundance of active fire and many affected areas of Mariposa County. It’s just not safe for anyone yet. We can’t pull the trigger on repopulation too early with the rapid movement of this fire. We are not aware of any fire-related fatalities at this point, and that’s really a blessing, due to the cooperation of the community.”
PG&E officials addressed the wide-spread power outage in the area, saying that approximately 11,000 customers have lost service since the fire started.
Restoration efforts began on Monday, with crews assessing the damage.
Today Cal Fire gave crews access to areas where the fire has already moved through. Teams were deployed into those areas, and identified 29 transmission poles, as well as more then 200 distribution poles which had been damaged.
This afternoon, crews were able to restore power to downtown Mariposa, and all the way to Jerseydale. At this point, says PG&E, more than 5,000 customers remain without power.
They are working to restore power in Bear Valley and Hunters Valley, and have identified 76 poles that will have to be replaced there. They hope to do all that work by Sunday, but do not have a time yet to say when all the damage will be repaired and power restored.
A 22-megawatt mobile generator has been brought in so that if a major power outages happen again, they have the ability to get people back online.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jeremy Rahn spoke on behalf of MMU Unit Chief Nancy Koerperich.
“The latest numbers are pushing 48,000 acres burning in the Detwiler Fire,” he explained. “There are 3,100 firefighters from throughout the state here to protect this community. Those firefighters want to let you know that regardless of where in the state they came from, right now this is their home ground.
“Sometimes these firefighters have driven eight, nine, ten hours to get here, but they go into the staging area and get straight to work. Some of them have been on duty for weeks, and they’re tired. But their mission is to protect your community and they give it their all.”
Addressing the issue of all the road closures, Chief Rahn stressed the fact that it’s just not safe for the public to be traveling these roadways.
“Currently we have active equipment on Highway 140 and Highway 49. We also have a lot of stressed trees from the drought. There are a lot of issues and dangers on the fire that are just now starting to be discovered, and we need to make sure there is a way to get our firefighters in and out safely.
“There was active fire on Highway 140 today, and it was being engaged with aircraft and ground crews. It will be a while until we can get those roads open so that you can safely use them.”
After fire officials spoke to the audience, they opened up the floor for questions, and the first had to do with the hard hit taken by businesses due to the evacuations.
“Will there be disaster assistance for the time our business have been closed?” asked one person. Sheriff Binnewies advised anyone with that issue to speak with local County government about what types of aid might be available.
One evacuee was concerned about animals who were released or left behind due to the circumstances of the quick evacuations.
Anyone facing the problem of losing an animal was advised to contact the Sheriff’s Office to identify pets or livestock, and they will be assisted from there.
One member of the audience asked about the direction the fire is moving, and was told that at this time officials are most concerned with the movement toward Old Highway and Ben Hur Road.
At that point, everyone was invited to stay and talk personally with the officials from the various agencies to have their questions answered. It was also noted that there will be more briefings in a community meeting setting as the incident progresses.
Cal Fire stressed that there is a phone center staffed with people who can answer questions from the public, and they were encouraged to call 844-668-3473 (844-MMU-FIRE).
This is the fire map on display at tonight’s meeting.