OAKHURST — Just before noon today, Jennifer Christenson was traveling south on Highway 41, leaving Oakhurst and heading up Deadwood toward Coarsegold. Just south of Victoria Lane, she saw what none of us ever wants to see.
“There was a big plume of smoke and I thought, ‘Gosh what an idiot! Who’s doing the burn pile right now?”
Jennifer was about to call 911 so they could check on what she thought was an illegal burn, but quickly realized that’s not what it was.
“Up Deadwood I see three cars pulled over and I realize that it was a fire on the west side of the road,” she recounts. “I felt an immediate panic, and saw men run down the embankment. I thought, ‘Is there a car that caught fire and rolled over?’ I went into nurse mode, thinking ‘How can I help a patient? Can I help?’ I was parked in the only pullout and didn’t want to be in the way.”
Jennifer could now see there was no car on fire, but the vegetation was burning in several spots.
“I saw about five guys trying to put it out, and multiple spots burning. Three of the men were on one of the spots and two were at the other. Two of the guys had shovels, one in each spot, and they were scooping dirt on the fire and stomping with their feet and trying to pound it out into the dirt.”
Still dealing with a broken foot from a head-on crash she survived with now-husband Drew last December, Jennifer’s first instinct as an ER nurse was to help out. Stomping was impossible due to her foot injury, and that’s when she started to wish she was prepared with a shovel, water, or fire extinguisher.
Meanwhile, the local men who had stopped were doing everything possible to quash the spreading flames.
“I walked over to the men, asking if I could do anything and they were saying ‘Don’t get burnt!’ So I got out of the way, and just then an officer on a motorcycle pulled up. Traffic was still going and we were trying to get people to slow down. Sheriff and CHP stopped northbound traffic. About 10 minutes in another officer from the southbound stopped traffic.”
Jennifer had her hazard lights on and was motioning out of the window, waiving at cars to slow down. When it was clear that local citizens and authorities were controlling the scene and she could do no more, it was time to get out of the way.
Meanwhile, Highway 41 was closed temporarily at Highway 49, and traffic was diverted around onto Road 425B. Madera County Engine 310 Cal Fire responded to the scene along with a dozer and worked quickly to button the fire up as Cal Trans continued to direct traffic.
Forward progress of the fire was stopped at just after noon, and by 12:30 p.m. the roadway was open, though traffic remained backed up for quite a while.
By then, Jennifer had made it home, gone immediately online, and ordered a collapsible shovel from Amazon for about $20. She hopes we’ll all do some version of the same thing, and says to get a fire extinguisher, as well. You never know when you’ll need it.
Finally, she wants to give kudos to the professionals who responded to the scene, but especially to the unnamed citizens who were bravely standing between flames and the rest of us.
“I really want to acknowledge the men who were stomping, scooping and doing everything they could to put that fire out themselves.”
Fortunately, this string of fires was doused before escaping into the vegetation to cause real damage. It’s an excellent reminder that we would be wise to remain vigilant as we are still in fire season with extremely dry conditions, even while the weather starts to cool.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
For more information visit www.readyforwildfire.com