In more than 20 years managing properties in the Mountain Area, Joe Topper said Wednesday he’d never seen anything like the barrage of rainfall that flooded Oakhurst and surrounding communities, leaving behind tens of thousands of dollars in property damage.
What started as light rain quickly turned into a monstrous deluge Tuesday afternoon, causing yurts to float down the Fresno River and crash into bridges.
Water also burst from a hole in the parking lot of an Oakhurst apartment complex that Topper oversees through Sierra Pines Property Management.
The flood forced two families from their homes, Topper said, and they found shelter with friends or family.
He said it would likely take more than a month for the Wagon Wheel apartment complex, located on River Park Road near China Creek, to be fully repaired.
“We’ve got calls into the owner, checking on insurance, all sorts of things,” Topper said. “I’ve seen the water get that high before, but never like that.”
What remains the most urgent challenge, Topper said, was how to fill the some four-foot-wide hole. He said though it got close, the surging creek didn’t breach a five-foot-high brick wall surrounding the lot.
Instead, water gushed out of that crater, Topper said, and quickly overwhelmed pumps Sierra Pines put in place to try and contain the damage before flooding out couches, bicycles, and other property.
“We’re going to dump sand and what we can back in that hole,” Topper said. “But can we make it waterproof in 24 hours? I don’t know. We’ve got to do what we can so hopefully it won’t get hit as hard.”
Brian Ochs, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Hanford, said a second storm, known as an “atmospheric river,” was coming to the mountains on Thursday. As much as 3 inches of rain is predicted below 9,000 feet elevation, Ochs said.
“It probably won’t be as bad as the storm we saw yesterday, but it’s still going to be very significant,” Ochs said. “You’re probably looking at half an inch to three quarters of an inch every six hours or so.”
From a 24-hour period ending 4 p.m. Tuesday, 4.18 inches of rain reportedly fell in North Fork, alongside 3 inches in Mariposa, and 2.5 inches in Oakhurst. Some areas reported as much as an inch of rain per hour.
Ochs said the warmer storm Tuesday likely caused snow to melt in the mountains, creating those periods of flash flooding. He said that wasn’t as likely with Thursday’s predicted storm.
“It’s a possibility that we’ll see some further snow melting as a result of the rain, but I don’t think it’ll be as warm as the last system.”
Topper estimated the damages to the apartment complex around $15,000 to $20,000.
A few miles away, at High Sierra RV and Mobile Park on Golden Oak Drive near Crane Valley Road (426), manager Kathy Frye looked out on the Fresno River, which had greatly receded from the day before.
Around 1 p.m. Tuesday, the park’s two yurts - high-quality, fully furnished tents with televisions, AC units, and electric appliances - were quickly uprooted, causing them to surge down river and crash into the Road 426 bridge near Sierra Tel.
Though nobody was inside them and there were no reported injuries, Frye said it was like losing the property’s “flagships,” as they each cost around $10,000, not including the additional $5,000 or more in furnishings. They also weren’t insured, Frye said.
Crews from the Madera County Sheriff’s Office, California Highway Patrol, Sierra Tel, and Pacific Gas and Electric Company attempted to pull at least one of the yurts out of the river by towing cable, but were unsuccessful. The yurts had to be destroyed, and pulled out of the water, piece by piece.
In more than 25 years managing the property, Frye said she’d never seen anything like it.
“I felt nothing but panic,” Frye said. “It’s just sad. Because we’ve worked so hard to dig out the land, put in piping, all kinds of things for years. Then to see it all get wiped out so quickly like that is heartbreaking.”
Frye said it was likely the lower area of the RV park, situated on a beach next to the river, would never again be used for yurts or other “glamping” - glamorous camping - equipment.
“I think this will be strictly a tent area,” Frye said. “It makes it easy to get people out of there if something like this happens gain.”
The river rose so rapidly - as much as several feet in mere hours, Frye said - that an RV was almost carried off too. After putting in a call to Doc’s Towing, which dispatched a truck from Northstar Towing, she said workers were able to pull out the vehicle and get it to safety.
Negotiations are underway to determine who is responsible for some $350 in towing costs, Frye said.
She added her thanks for everyone who has helped out at High Sierra as it recovers from the flood. That included Richard Delgado of the Madera County Department of Corrections who, on recommendation from Sheriff’s Sgt. Larry Rich, brought an inmate crew to the property Wednesday morning to help clean up the remaining portions of the yurts and other damage.
A torrential takeover
On Monday, the National Weather Service issued a flood watch across the Sierra Nevada from Yosemite to Kings Canyon national parks. The flood watch was to remain in place until 10 p.m. Tuesday, the NWS said, but it was upgraded to a flash flood warning until 2:45 p.m. that day, with flooding and mudslides possible in Oakhurst, Bass Lake, and areas as far from the mountains as Clovis.
As rivers and streams quickly swelled to dangerous levels, mandatory evacuations were issued for North Fork on the east side of Church Street and at Bass Lake Mobile Home Park around 3:20 p.m.
Shortly before noon, PG&E cautioned residents in those areas to prepare for evacuation. The company said it would be forced to increase flows from Bass Lake as the storms gained strength, similar to last month, which also forced evacuations in North Fork.
At 2:42 p.m., Madera County officials also reported that an earthen dam on Lewis Fork of Yosemite Forks, near Sugar Pine north of Oakhurst on Highway 41, was in danger of failing.
Evacuation warnings were issued for Cedar Valley as a result. Other flooded areas included in the warnings were Lake Side Drive, Cedar Place, Deer Run Trail Road, and Lazy Oak Drive.
Shortly before 3 p.m., the Boys & Girls Club of Oakhurst, along Indian Springs Road, was also evacuated as the Fresno River continued to rise.
The storm appeared to calm around 4:30 p.m., with only light rainfall that remained into Wednesday. Around noon Wednesday, rivers and streams had receded several feet, back to safer levels.