Close to home

Brian WilkinsonAugust 14, 2013 

A roadside vegetation fire, pushed by moderate winds, quickly moved north from John West Road at West View Drive up a ravine parallel with Crane Valley Road (426) Aug. 11.

Fire crews, numbering more than 150, were quick to respond to the 20-acre fire with 18 Cal Fire, U.S. Forest Service, and Madera County volunteer fire engines along with four water helicopters, four tankers dropping fire retardant, one air attack spotter plane, three water tenders and two bulldozers.

The fire, named the West Fire, was reported at 1:34 p.m. and was contained about 7 p.m. as firefighters had hose lines around the fire. Mop-up continued into the night and a few firefighters remained on the scene overnight and throughout Monday and Tuesday to make sure the fire was completely out.

The fire got dangerously close to the home of Brad and Joanie Madaus, but the home was saved as five fire engines and a 40-man hand crew force placed themselves between the fire and the home, stopping it about 30 to 50 feet from a propane tank and about 30 yards from the house. The home is located on the west side of Crane Valley Road (426), above Coyote Ridge.

Joanie was home at the time with her mother, 8 year-old grandson and family pets when she smelled smoke and quickly realized there was a big fire on the west side of her home as large chunks of ash were falling from the sky. “My first reaction was to get my mother and grandson and two small dogs into the car, grab some important papers and leave the property,” Joanie said.

After getting her mother and grandson to a neighbors house, she returned to the house picked-up the family’s large dog, family paintings and pictures and her daughter’s parakeet, Ava.

She then called her husband who was travelling to Santa Rosa.

“I gave Brad a run-down on what was going on and told him I couldn’t talk anymore and had to go,” Joanie said. A neighbor of the couple, Denver Osborne, was at Round Table Pizza with his wife after attending church.

“We were sitting at the back of the restaurant looking out the windows over Oakhurst when I saw a large billow of white smoke up the hill near where we live,” Osborn said. “When the smoke quickly doubled in size, we decided to box up our pizza and head home.”

Osborn said when he got home he changed clothes and jumped on his ATV and went straight to the Madaus house. “I wanted to move Brad’s tractor because I was afraid it would get destroyed,” Osborn said.

Osborn found the keys to the tractor and filled the bucket on the front of the tractor with water. He made six or seven trips to dump water on the oncoming fire before firefighters arrived.

Eric Wolters, who’s property adjoins the Madaus property, did all he could to help put out the fire and used his truck to shuttle hand crews from Little Lake Road to the Madaus house.

Yet another neighbor, Al Farlinger, who lives about three miles from the Madaus house, arrived at the property and used a garden hose and a shovel to put out a couple small spot fires that were near the hose.

“My wife called me from Vons and told me it looked like a fire was near our house. I went to look and could tell it was near Brad’s house, so I headed over there to see if I could help,” Farlinger said.

Farlinger, who grew up with Brad, said he just wanted to do the best he could to help.

“I’m glad the firefighters got on this quickly — This fire, close to many homes, could have been a lot worse than it was,” Farlinger said. Osborne felt the same about the quick response from the firefighters.

The Madaus family was grateful for the efforts of their neighbors.

“The fireman, helicopters and airplanes arrived quickly,” Osborn said. “This fire was getting out of control fast before the air support got to the fire. Your have to take your hat off to Cal Fire and whoever was in charge to get all engines, hand crews and the air support in there as quick as they did. Another 10 or 15 minutes without that air support, the fire could have easily gotten out of hand destroying many homes and causing millions of dollars of damage in the area.” Karen Guilleman, fire prevention specialist for Cal Fire explained when they receive a report of a wildland fire, they launch the air craft and all the other firefighting resources immediately.

“Everyone starts towards the location and the first engine that arrives makes a quick assessment of the situation and what resources the fire will need. In this case, due to the area of this fire being in an urban/wildland mixed area, all resources continued to respond.”

Guilleman said the fire showed there is a lot of dry brush that needs to be removed and there is not enough defensible space between the homes in the area.

“We really need the public to provide the minimum 100-foot defensible space around their homes and other structures on their property,” Guilleman said. “The threat of wildland fires will continue until we receive substantial rainfall and that could be another 60 to 90 days.”

Joanie said it was the extensive clearing around their property that made a big difference in the house being saved. “It may seem like a big expense to clear the undergrowth on your property, but in our case, it was totally worth it,” Joanie said. “If you want firefighters to save your house, you need to make your house as defensible as possible. It’s nothing you want to procrastinate about. The bravery and professionalism of the firefighters was wonderful. They had a job to do, they knew what to do and they worked quickly and efficiently. I would have hugged them all but one firefighter told me he probably had poison oak all over him.”

At least one homeowner on John West Road, Joe Smith, voiced concern over the fact there is not an alternate escape route for residents of the area.

“When John West Road was closed, there were many people, including a mother and her baby, who could not exit, that could have been a life-threatening incident” Smith said. “The county needs to consider proper egress and digress roads to get people out in a situation like this.”

Although six to seven homes were threatened by the fire, no homes were damaged and there were no injuries to any firefighters due to the blaze.

A reverse 911 call from the Madera County Sheriff’s Office was made to area residents advising them of the fire. For public safety, the California Highway Patrol had Crane Valley Road (426) closed to traffic from John West Road to Dale Lane for about two hours during the height of the fire and John West Road was also shut-down to public traffic. Crane Valley Road (426) was re-opened at 5 p.m.

“The bravery and professionalism of the firefighters was wonderful,” Joanie said. “They had a job to do, they knew what to do and they worked quickly and efficiently. I would have hugged them all but one firefighter told me he probably had poison oak all over him.”

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

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