Massive pillars of heavy smoke spewed out from the nearly 4,400-acre Willow Fire Friday evening, as crews continued efforts throughout the day to shore up the blaze’s eastern and western edges while constructing bulldozer lines about a mile northwest of Cascadel Woods and southwest of Whiskers Camp.
Not everything looked grim though, as containment increased to 40% Friday from 30% the day before, and the flame’s people saw to the southeast was largely through controlled burns that officials say will help further tame the raging inferno.
More than 1,900 personnel across multiple states have been assigned thus far to combat the wildfire, with duties spread out in seven divisions across its perimeter. Costs of fighting the blaze reached $8.2 million Friday morning, according to public information officers.
A community meeting will be held 2 p.m. Saturday at the North Fork Town Hall where incident managers will discuss current and expected fire behavior, evacuations, and address any concerns from the community.
Scorched acreage reports will likely increase Saturday morning, firefighters said, as a flyover infrared scan alongside walking crews with GPS signals will help provide more accurate numbers at that time.
Evacuation orders remained in place for Cascadel Woods and Central Camp Friday night. The Red Cross set up an evacuation shelter at the Oakhurst Community Center, where the Central California Animal Disaster Team can also house small animals.
At least 21 people from Cascadel Woods were going to stay at the shelter Friday after the area was placed on mandatory evacuation Thursday morning, said Katrina Poitras, disaster program manager with the Red Cross.
Fernando Herrera, a public information officer with the South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team, said the wildfire’s most expansive growth in the past few days has been on its southeastern flank, stretching from shortly north of Peckinpah Creek to just west of Whisky Falls.
Divisions X and Y are at work on that flank, and their work Friday included institution of controlled burns to push the fire across its dozer line south near Road 233, closer to where personnel are staged at the Old North Fork Mill.
Public information officer Raj Singh said duties for crews in those divisions were focused primarily on reinforcing that bulldozer line to prevent the loss of homes or other structures and help slow down the inferno’s progress through a controlled area. The line contains hose to spray water on oncoming flames, with a massive line of engines and other backup equipment nearby.
Should the fire unfortunately jump the contingency line, a second set of bulldozer lines was completed to the east and across Cascadel Woods, Herrera said.
Controlled backfires have been used previously to help slow the fire’s path, Herrera said, near the eastern and western portions of the blaze. Those techniques have proven successful as those sections remained in control again through Friday by divisions A, B, and M.
“We want to stay ahead of the fire,” Herrera added of the backburns. “The overall goal is to get in areas where we build contingency lines so we’re able to stop the fire should it progress.”
Divisions A, B, and M are mopping up and performing other cleanup tasks to help shore up the potential of any flying embers Herrera said. Crews also rely on natural borders such as roads or terrain to help cease any wildfire progress.
To the north, where the fire has crossed over 7 Rock, Herrera said a dozer line was built along Central Camp Road by Division C, with further line construction likely stretching around the blaze’s path northeast path pointing towards Browns Meadow.
There are open pieces along that line, officials said, but it remained unbroken through Friday night and crews were maintaining the blaze, though it progressed northward.
Though that area remained uncontrolled as a whole, its growth hasn’t been as strong as the southeast flank.
Beginning of the end
Other positive signs remained throughout the day. A federal BAER (burned area emergency response) team is on its way, which officials said represents the beginning of the end for the Willow Fire.
Temperatures also decreased through Thursday evening thanks to monsoon-like moisture, though they’re likely to increase Saturday.
No injuries were reported Friday. A few firefighters have displayed flu-like symptoms, officials said, and two have felt effects from the heat, though they aren’t serious.
An interactive map of the Willow Fire, showcasing its growth each day since it was sparked July 25, is available at http://ow.ly/Qm4GW.
Fire details can be seen at http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/4413/ or by calling (559) 877-7449.
The Willow Fire was allegedly sparked by a juvenile boy who obtained a lighter from his family’s toolbox and set some small pine branches ablaze. Though the boy screamed for help and his family ran to try and put the fire out, the flames quickly grew out of control, Madera County District Attorney David Linn said.
Charges will not be filed on the minor until sometime next week, Linn announced Thursday, as his office receives additional reports on the fire’s progress and its damages.
Gov. Jerry Brown also declared a state of emergency Friday afternoon across California, requiring all agencies to provide assistance to some 8,000 firefighters already battling 18 wildfires in the parched state.
The California National Guard said before that declaration it was dispatching a fleet of helicopters – at least nine in total including Blackhawks – to provide reinforcements for the Willow Fire.
Smoke causes health concerns
The Willow Fire has prompted air officials to issue a health cautionary statement for smoke impacts in the eastern areas of Merced, Madera, and Fresno counties. The caution is in place until the fire is extinguished.
Smoke from fires produces fine-particulate matter, which can cause serious health problems including lung disease, asthma attacks and increased risk of heart attacks and stroke. Where conditions warrant, people with heart or lung disease should follow their doctors’ advice for dealing with episodes of particulate exposure.
Additionally, older adults and children should avoid prolonged exposure or heavy exertion, depending on their local conditions.
Residents can check the district’s wildfire page - valleyair.org/wildfires.htm - for information about any current wildfires. Residents can also check the nearest air monitor to their location to determine localized air-quality conditions. Visit the Real-time Air Advisory Network page on the district’s website to subscribe for free.
Details: valleyair.org, Fresno office, (559) 230-6000.
Wildfire smoke masks are available at the North Fork Market, the Sierra Star office in Oakhurst, Coarsegold Pharmacy, True Value Home Center in Oakhurst, Sierra Telephone, Madera County Fire Station 12 in Oakhurst, and the Madera County Sheriff’s Department in Oakhurst.
The masks are free and were donated by Camarena Health.
Willow Fire map download