The terrifying 79,000-acre Detwiler Fire in neighboring Mariposa County that destroyed 63 homes and damaged another 13, should serve as a giant wakeup call to property owners in Eastern Madera County who have yet to provide 100 feet of defensible space around their house.
Cal Fire requires the “defensible space” around all structures to increase the protection of the home while providing a safe zone for firefighters. For whatever reason, and there are plenty of them, there are still many Mountain Area property owners who have yet to do the necessary work to make their home as safe as possible for themselves, their neighbors, and firefighters.
Fire officials say “defensible space” is something so important it could be the difference between saving homes and lives, and not being able to if a large wildland fire was to start in Eastern Madera County.
“All the white ash we saw around here on cars and on the ground last week were embers from the Detwiler Fire that had turned cold,” said Roger Maybee, who served as Madera County Firewise Coordinator for eight years. “If those embers were still hot, they could have easily started spot fires and structure fires here.”
With the Detwiler Fire so fresh in everyone’s minds, it’s probably a good time for another reminder of the 1961 Harlow Fire that demolished Ahwahnee and Nipinnawasee in 15 minutes, and threatened Oakhurst.
By all accounts at the time, it was the fastest burning fire in California history, burning as much as 175 acres per minute and sweeping across more than 18,000 acres in two hours as it raged from around Stumpfield Mountain in Mariposa County to the very edge of Oakhurst in two days.
The late J. Clyde Werly, Jr. was a fire boss for the U.S. Forest Service at the time and he reported the fire started around 10 a.m. July 10, and things were going reasonably well until the fire crossed the Chowchilla River below Metcalf Gap between 3 and 4 p.m..
The late Dwight Barnes wrote about the fire in the July 10, 2008 edition of the Sierra Star, with information taken from Werly’s final report on the fire.
Heavy fuel on the west face of Crooks Mountain triggered the beginning of a firestorm, and Werly reported that as he headed to Ahwahnee just below Nipinnawasee, he met the fire head on - a 50-foot wall of flames driven by 40-mph winds. About all that could be done was to warn people to seek safety wherever ground was cleared.
The importance of cleared ground may have best been exhibited at Cunningham School, now at Fresno Flats Historic Village & Park. The school was the only building in Nipinnawasee to survive. It was saved because vegetation on the grounds around it had been worn thin by years of children playing outside. The fire just went around it.
Of the 116 homes in the area at the time, 106 were destroyed. The 10 that did not burn survived because brush and other vegetation nearby had been cleared.
Various federal and state firefighting agencies combined to produce a video about Harlow Fire, in which veteran historian and Sierra Star Publisher Jack Gyer recalled the fire catching up with him as he sped down Highway 49 toward Oakhurst - Flames moving faster than he could drive.
The late Larry Ballew, a forester and rancher was caught on top of Miami Mountain and survived because he and his crew of 25 prisoners were able to get down in a trench as the fire passed over them.
From that vantage point, Ballew was able to note times as he watched the fire sweep from Miami to Deadwood in just nine minutes. It took 17 seconds to get from the base of Deadwood to its top.
As the fire swept toward Oakhurst, about all fire crews could do is flee, according to one official who was on the scene, but it was stopped before it got to town.
The video emphasizes it could happen again. Today, in the area that burned in 1961, it is estimated there are 15,000 homes.
The community Reverse 911 notification system is set up to call land lines in areas affected by an emergency, including wildland fires. The call will provide residents directions to evacuation routes or safe areas, depending on the situation. We urge you to sign-up for Reverse 911 calls at www.nixle.com.
Maybee feels with all the tall grass and tree mortality, the fire season will continue through September an October and it’s imperative that people provide that defensible space. His message is simple: “If you wait, it could be too late.”
NOTE: For details of a wildfire action and evacuation plans, emergency supply kits, see www.readyforwildfire.org, and www.firewisemaderacounty.org. The Harlow Fire video can be seen on the Firewise website.