OAKHURST – Since I hadn’t really left the house since Monday when the fire broke out, this seemed like a good day to drop my no-school-today teenager at the movies and drive north to see what was happening in the aftermath of the Junction Fire, a beast that screamed through Oakhurst with a rate of speed and intensity that had some of the toughest foothill residents, and even some firefighters, shaking their heads and saying, “Whoa.”
What would come to be called the Junction Fire began the afternoon of Monday, August 18, just as kids in the Yosemite and Bass Lake school districts were finishing their first day of school. Many parents picking up their children noticed the plume of smoke rising up west of Highway 41, and had no idea that the clothes they were wearing at that minute would have to suffice for days.
Most of our friends up here were either among the thousands of residents evacuated, or were hosting evacuees by Monday night. We had dear friends stay with us who live on Road 620, a family including their two kids, four cats, one dog and one chameleon. They were able to return to their home on Tuesday, while others were repopulating on Wednesday, just as I was driving into Oakhurst.
Fresno County firefighters directed me up to Oakhurst Rocks, where I found owner Bruce Bennett and Office Manager Melissa Lewis beginning to take an inventory of what they’d lost. The office building was saved while the old truck and a working golf cart on the property were torched by the flames that ultimately threatened Suburban Propane across the street, and took out a number of buildings in its path, along with at least two homes.
After Bruce and Melissa explained that the neat stacks of cement “rocks” were once housed in boxes that burned, and Bruce said they are absolutely still open for business, it was time to move on to another location. I set out in search of firefighters, because while it may seem as though this fire is over — and largely the threat has diminished — it’s not really over until the mop-up is complete and that’s what crews are still out doing today.
For a little while, I stood looking across 41 at the blackened hill where flames had consumed fuel in a march of destruction that’s difficult to comprehend until you see what’s left, and what isn’t. While rumors on Monday night were rampant, Suburban Propane was still standing with the exception of its office building, which firefighters had to let burn.
Cal Fire’s Ryan Davis explained that the protocol for road closures, warnings, evacuations and all kinds of safety measures are mapped out far in advance of a fire like the one we’ve seen here this week. The choices authorities make are predetermined through Madera and Mariposa County fire management plans, and once fire reaches a particular location, calls to conform to the plan are sent out and followed to the letter.
It was fascinating to hear how the crews handled the blaze at Suburban Propane, where the safest thing to do was let the building burn and continually attack the largest propane tanks with cooling water, while simoultaneously letting the clear gas slowly burn as it exited the safety escape valve on the massive tanks. This is sort of like, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Vapor clouds of propane can drift unseen, while burning propane is visible and more efficiently fought.
Looking for action in the form of working crews, I was directed over to Old Barn Road, where Cal Fire Battalion Chief and Public Information Officer Chris Christopherson was standing by in the rubble left from what was the home of Pat and MaryHelen Mierkey and their son, James. Mr. and Mrs. Mierkey were out with their daughter, Melinda Rich, and while I expected a somber scene, it was a relief and actually a lesson in grace to see the Mierkeys at work, picking through pieces until a cry of victory over something precious lost, then found.
“I’ve got it! We found the pan,” hollered MaryHelen, as a firefighter handed over her heirloom cast iron pan. The Mierkeys have been married 49 years this winter, and the pan was a wedding gift, “seasoned by my grandmother,” she said.
Pat Mierkey was overjoyed to find the remains of his trombone, “one of the best,” as well as a piece of another priceless heirloom trombone, causing him to show me an image of his grandfather playing the trombone in a treasured old photograph that had thankfully been scanned, and was already safe online when the fire hit.
Piece after piece of “little things,” mostly ceramic, were pulled from the ashes, including a coffee cup Pat made about 30 years ago. It has a built-in horn, and survived the fire mostly intact, missing its handle, but unbroken otherwise, as Mierkey demonstrated when he played it for us.
“It’s Belle!” exclaimed MaryHelen, with all the excitement you’d expect if your treasured collection of Disney Princesses was gone, until suddenly your favorite royal of all was plucked from the charred remains.
What remains. That’s what I kept thinking about as I poked around in this intimate moment of the Mierkeys’ lives, taking pictures and chatting, as if it was not among the hardest days of their lives.
Except, it wasn’t. Today I learned what others have long-known. The Mierkeys are special people. Rather than cry over what they’ve lost, they were thrilled to find what now amount to relics of the life they led before Monday.
Now retired, Pat was a music teacher for over fifty years, and still volunteers with the schools, helping out in band. Recently, his son purchased a bright red piano that once belonged to the songwriting artist Carole King. Only the frame, some strings, and a piano stop were left sitting atop the ashes after the Junction Fire.
Pat remarked that one of the upsides of losing everything in the fire is that you get rid of all your “stuff,” something his children will not now need to do some day, hopefully long in the future, when the 71-year-old Mierkey leaves all this behind.
In the meantime, Patrick Mierkey wants the town to know they are okay. So okay, in fact, that he’ll be playing with the Yosemite Jazz Band as per usual, this Thursday night, Aug. 21, at the Pizza Factory in Oakhurst.
While other buildings were destroyed, and other families lost homes, no human life was lost in the course of the Junction Fire. Burning precariously close to Suburban Propane, everyone knows this could have been so much worse.
Just Monday afternoon, MaryHelen was standing in a bathtub on the second floor of their home, watching the fire on the west side of 41 burn, and reassuring her grandchildren as to where the fire was headed, and that it wouldn’t touch them. Suddenly, the wind shifted, and what MaryHelen didn’t realize is that the fire had already “spotted out” behind them and was burning toward their house, even as her son-in-law was on his way to pick up the kids.
In the end, they had just a couple of minutes to get out. The Mierkeys scooped up what they truly needed: the kids, the dogs and each other. All else was left behind.
Finally, after two incredibly intense days of looming catastrophe, things have calmed down considerably in the foothills. Here’s what I learned from the fire.
The sound of safety is the deep roar of aircraft dropping loads of water on luridly burning flames. The smell of safety is the scent of boot-broken tar weed and smoldering ash.
The feeling of safety is a small town, still standing, in the aftermath of disaster.
You go, Oakhurst, you go.