OAKHURST — To say it was standing room only would be a compete understatement, as hundreds crowded into the Oakhurst Community Center to hear from fire and law enforcement officials what they can expect in the coming days of the Railroad Fire.
The fire is now estimated at 2,185 acres with zero percent containment. However, Incident Commander Deron Mills wanted to make it clear that doesn’t mean they’re not making headway.
“We like to let sections cool off and burn down for about 24 hours before we call them contained,” said Mills.
He also pointed out that there are currently 20,000 firefighters assigned to incidents across the country, and that there have been several new fires in California over the past few days. That is putting quite a strain on resources as agencies approach total draw-down, and this fire is not likely to get all the resources it needs in the next couple days.
This was the first full day that the South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team has been running the fire, and Operations Section Chief Jeff Hinson commended the local forest team for the great job of initial attack, giving the incoming managers something to work from.
Hinson went through each section of the fire on a big map, to give everyone an idea of where the successes have been, and what challenges remain.
Crews are working on the southwest perimeter near Miami Mountain Road, getting those lines establish to turn the corner to the north, and come up the west flank toward Fish Camp, he said.
He also said that Jackson Road below Fish Camp and the Tenaya Lodge is holding, and crews are keeping the fire south of that road for about a mile-and-a-half to the east.
“The fire is pretty well checked up on Jackson,” said Hinson. “That part is cooling off, but the fire is still running toward Big Sandy, and is about three-quarters of a mile from there.”
There were some slop-overs on the northeast part of the fire today, putting up the huge smoke that everyone saw mid-afternoon.
Air tankers were utilized all day from Big Creek down to just north of Sugar Pine, and between Westfall and Sugar Pine Christian Camp, and they have been quite successful, said Hinson.
“Of most concern right now is the eastern shoulder,” he said, which still has a lot of heat and is headed toward Speckerman Mountain.
This meeting was an opportunity for residents to ask questions, and the first one was from a resident of the Sugar Pine Community who was concerned that they just didn’t know where the fire is headed, “to us or away from us. We’re not sure.”
“The forward progress toward Sugar Pine has been stopped to date,” said Hinson. “On the bottom of the 6S07 road, we have uncontained fire backing up into the Big Creek area. It’s backing and flanking along the slope toward the Sugar Pine community, but is still about a mile away. With the good air tanker work we had today, we’re hoping it buys us some time to get more resources in there.”
One person addressed recent reports that the fire was moving southwest toward Ahwahnee.
“We’ve had some thunderstorms and winds played games and shifted around,” said Hinson, “but we’ve had some pretty good success keeping the west side buttoned up and the forward progress stopped.”
Of course, everyone wants to know when Highway 41 will open.
“We don’t know,” said Mills. “It’s a process, and we know the Park and the CHP and the Sheriffs definitely want it open, but it’s a matter of public safety. As fire moves through and weakens all those dead trees — well, we’ll coordinate with law enforcement when it’s safe, but with the way this fire is moving around, it’s too early to predict when that will be.”
A Wawona resident was concerned that they would be evacuated for the second time in less than a month, and wanted to know what was being done to stop the spread into the park.
“What resources are being put in place to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” was the question. “Dozer work, tanker drops?
“In the Summit Road area, we used dozers and hand crews to stop the forward spread north,” said Hinson.
“There’s a lot of distance between there and Wawona, and our comfort level is good it’s not going to happen,” said Mills. “Of course, there’s no assurance with fire, and I’m not going to make any promises, but west of Highway 41 to the north, the fire hasn’t moved since Monday. Dozers, hand crews and engines are working that piece of line.
“We are fully aware of the impact this is having on the community,” said Mills, “and our number one objective is to return this area to a sense of normalcy, get the highway open and get tourism flowing.”
A question about structures lost was answered with the number seven – six homes and one barn-type structure, generally in the area of the point of origin of the fire.
One Fish Camp resident was concerned that the fire seemed very near her house, and was reassured that there is hand and dozer line coming up the flank in that area. The statement “all the houses are still standing” drew loud applause.
As did the request that everyone recognize and appreciate all the firefighters who are out there working so hard to bring this fire under control.
The issue of the Sky Ranch evacuation advisory was addressed and clarified by the Sheriff’s Office.
“The evacuation advisory is primarily for folks in the forest land,” said Cmdr. Tyson Pogue. “For everybody else it’s not mandatory, but they’re reminded to be prepared.”
Surprising enough, the question of “when do we get to go home,” was not asked during the public question period. However, all of the hundreds of people present were invited to stay after the questions ended and have one-on-one conversations with any of the fire officials, forest officers or law enforcement personnel in attendance.
Closures and evacuations on the Railroad Fire:
At 2:40 p.m. today, a mandatory evacuation order was issued for Big Sandy Campground. The area of Sky Ranch is under an evacuation advisory at this time.
Sheriff’s deputies also advised anyone at Soquel and Texas Flat campgrounds to be aware of the danger and be ready to evacuate if necessary.
The road closure on Highway 41 northbound is at Cedar Valley about three miles north of Oakhurst. The road is closed to southbound traffic inside Yosemite National Park at Wawona.
Road closures include Highway 41 and all offshoots between Cedar Valley Road and Summerdale Campground in both Madera County and Mariposa County, and Road 630 (Sugar Pine Road) and all cross streets, including Sugar Pine Christian Camps. Jackson Road is closed to Fresno Dome.
A mandatory evacuation is in place for the the community of Fish Camp, the Tenaya Lodge, the Narrow Gauge Inn, the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, the community of Sugar Pine including the Christian camp, and all homes and businesses in the immediate vicinity. Evacuations run north from Fish Camp to the Summerdale Campground.
The community of Wawona is also being warned of the possible threat potential from this fire. Residents and visitors are encouraged to make appropriate pre-evacuation preparations.
A Red Cross evacuation center has been established at the Oakhurst Community Center, 39800 Road 425B. A second shelter is in Yosemite National Park at the Valley Visitors Center at 9035 Village Drive.
The Central California Animal Disaster Team has activated a small animal shelter at the Oakhurst Community Center Pavillion Building. Small animals can also be sheltered at the Mariposa SPCA, 5599 Highway 49 in Mariposa. The phone number is 209-966-5275. Large animals can be sheltered at the Coarsegold Rodeo Grounds, at 44777 Rodeo Grounds Lane in Coarsegold. The phone number is 559-676-7864.
All roads past Wawona inside Yosemite are open, except Glacier Point Road, which was closed on Sunday due to increased fire activity on the Empire Fire.
For fire updates, residents and visitors can message RAILROADFIRE (one word) to 888777.
The Railroad Fire was reported at 12:20 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 29, just south of the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad on the west side of Highway 41.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.