New Beginnings

Like spring flowers, houses are popping-up in Bass Lake Heights - the subdivision east of Oakhurst near Bass Lake that had 30 homes destroyed by the Sept. 14 Courtney Fire.

Seven homes are currently in some stage of construction, from the start of a foundation to homes fully framed and enclosed, with three more going through the building approval process.

“Although it’s been a slow process, it’s exciting to watch new homes going up,” said Steve Dodd, who along with his wife Grace, lost their Arbor Lane home to the Courtney Fire. “Many of the people here are retirees, me included, and starting over can be very hard on the body and mind, so we just have to take it one day at a time.”

Dodd, who hopes to move into his new home in early July, said the fact that some of the home owners are now rebuilding, will give other property owners some reassurance and encouragement that the future is bright, and people are working to bring the neighborhood back to what it once was.

Leo and Sheila Miner owned a rental home in Bass Lake Heights at the corner of Crane Valley Road (426) and Manzanita Drive, that was lost in the devastating 320-acre blaze.

Miner, a building contractor, is rebuilding the home with the help of another contractor, and his good friend, Dennis McConnell, along with Clinton Petros.

Leo was in the Mountain Area at the time of the fire, and Sheila, who works for the U.S. Forest Service, was out of town on a fire in Northern California.

“Leo called me and kept me posted over the course of a few hours,” Sheila said. “Then he broke the news that our place was gone. It was a shock and so devastating to see the tremendous loss and destruction after the fire. When Leo met with our insurance representative on site, he found charred remains of our fence, but nothing else. What was left of our home was simply piles of ash, scattered nails, bolts and pools of melted metal.”

Although Leo said the clean-up process of removing debris and 18 Ponderosa pine trees was overwhelming at times, there was never a hesitation that the couple would rebuild.

“Leo and I made that decision on the phone while I was still out of town,” Sheila said.

“We’re glad to see other property owners clean-up and building,” Leo said. “New beginnings are happening ... we’re already seeing new growth in some of the trees and vegetation that was spared from the fires ... that’s promising. We believe it’s time to rebuild and move on, and we hope everyone is able to do the same to help restore the neighborhood.”

The Miner’s were impressed and thankful for the community response to the horrible fire.

“The immediate community response in reaching out the victims and offering assistance and donations was tremendous,” Sheila said. “A big thank you to everyone that was part of that effort. It was not only the immediate community, but a church group from out of town arrived soon after the fire, and volunteered for several days to assist homeowners with the clean up effort.”

Many owners of destroyed homes have not begun demolition of the foundations and chimneys on their property for a number of reasons including they have decided not to rebuild, and plan to sell their lots. There have also been some delays in finalizing insurance claims because some of the owners have had delays in determining property and home content values.

Although a couple property owners have voiced concern over lots not being cleared some seven months after the fire, there is no time limit for the clean-up to occur as long as there are no safety issues. County inspectors have looked at all the lots and have found none to be a public safety hazard according to Madera County Environmental Health Deputy Director Jill Yaeger.

“I fear in the long run, properties that have not been cleaned-up will lower property values of the whole neighborhood,” said a homeowner who asked to remain anonymous.

The county has waived permit fees, and the $500 demolition fee for those rebuilding. Norman Allinder, county planning director explained that there will also be no mitigation fees assessed for roads, fire protection, or schools (as much as $10,000) since those fees were already paid when the homes were originally built.

“Just as we were immediately following the catastrophic fire, we are ready to support the victims all we can,” said Allinder.

A key element to rebuilding and serving those who did not lose their homes, were the repairs to the community water system, paid for by the state. According to Yaeger, the water quality currently meets drinking water standards.

We became speechless ... and prayed

The Dodd’s remember the fire like it was yesterday. They were in Fresno sitting down to lunch when they received a call from a neighbor, telling them they better head home because a fire was heading in the direction of their house.

“Grace and I talked on the way home about the evacuation plans we had for ourselves, our belongings, and our two dogs,” Dodd said. “But those plans were useless since we were not home.”

Dodd said as they approached their mountain home they began to realize the sad reality they were about to face.

“It looked like an atomic bomb had been dropped,” Dodd said, “ Something you would see on TV happening ‘somewhere else’ to ‘someone else.’ We became speechless and just held hands, shed a few tears, and prayed. We drove to the edge of where the fire was, got out of the car, and ran up the road towards the house, but the smoke and crackle of burning trees drove us back. It was an overwhelming, horrid event that made us feel helpless, and I collapsed to the pavement.”

Dodd said he looked back at his wife standing in the road and could see the horror in her face and tears streaking down her face.

At that time, Dodd made an attempt to reach their home to get his two black Labrador-mix dogs who were in an outside pen, but was turned back by a large cedar tree that exploded into a fireball. about three minutes later Steve and Grace saw and felt a 100-foot tall fireball.

“We knew this was our home and we were in total disbelief” Steve said. “Everything was gone - all our children’s pictures and the priceless treasures they had made for us, and our own baby pictures, along with our ATV, a new BMW motorcycle, and pickup truck.”

A short time later, the two trembling labs were delivered to the couple by firemen, although their son’s girlfriend’s dog, Oscar, placed in their care, was in the house and lost in the fire.

“If I had the choice to save the house or Oscar, I would have chosen Oscar,” Steve said.

Oscar Bustillos of Southern California, who was working on a ranch, was charged with one felony count of arson and two misdemeanor counts after allegedly setting fire to a deer carcass to destroy it. That fire resulted in a grass fire that quickly spread from Courtney Lane to Bass Lake Heights. His attorney said it was an accident. The estimated loss was more than $14 million, with an additional $4.4 million spent to suppress the fire.

Bustillos’ will be in Madera County Superior Court, Department 2, 9:30 a.m., Friday, May 15, for a pre-trial hearing.