For nearly 1,800 fire fighters, there were no family picnics, barbecues, or hugs from children on Father’s Day - instead it was another day of containing the Sky and Corrine fires in Eastern Madera County.
As of Tuesday afternoon, both fires were in ‘mop-up’ mode, after the Sky Fire, north of Oakhurst, had burned more than 500 acres. The Corrine Fire, between North Fork and Auberry, burned 920 acres. No homes were lost (three outbuildings from Corrine), and no injuries were reported from either fire.
At the peak of both fires, more than 2,650 fire personnel, 157 fire engines - from as far away as Los Angeles, and the Bay Area - nine air tankers, 10 helicopters, 27 water tenders, 20 bulldozers, 64 hand crews (totaling more than 400 firefighters), and an army of support services including portable kitchens and showers.
Like a returning nightmare, the two fires (that started within six and a half hours of each other on June 18), came just nine months after the Courtney Fire that destroyed 30 homes near Bass Lake on Sept. 14, one month after the Junction Fire roared through Oakhurst, burning down four homes, several outbuildings, and a couple businesses.
No homes were destroyed in either fire; three outbuildings were destroyed in Corrine Fire. Only one minor injury was reported for both fires, an arm-stress fracture suffered by a firefighter on the Sky Fire.
Sky Ranch Road (632) remained closed as of Tuesday afternoon, due to active fire, and fire personnel working to clear trees along the road. It is hoped the road will be open by this weekend.
The fire sparked about 8:30 p.m., Thursday, June 18, and had burned more than 700 acres as of 6 p.m. Friday.
At its peak, more than 100 fires engines, 44 fire crews, and 14 water tenders from throughout the state were fighting the blaze on the ground with support from nine rotating air tankers and two helicopters. On Friday, each of the planes, carrying between 1,200 and 4,000 gallons of fire retardant, made 15 trips from the Fresno International Airport to the fire.
Many roads were closed during the fire, and evacuation advisories and orders were given to residents by the Madera County Sheriff’s Department, and the California Highway Patrol.
Last Friday afternoon Greg Pecaut, a former fireman, who lives with his wife Theresa about a quarter mile inside the road block, was concerned for the the three dogs at his house.
“I’d like to get in there at get the dogs out, but I understand for safety reasons they can’t let people in there right now,” Pecaut said.
Carrie Waltner and her 12-year-old daughter Josiah, were visiting friends when they heard about the evacuation, but by the time they got to Road 233, the road block was already up, denying them access to their house.
Josiah, like the Pecauts, was worried about the family’s two-year-old Labrador at the house, but had lots of confidence in the firefighters.
“I hope they (firefighters) get the fire under control soon,” Josiah said. “That’s their job and they’re good at it.”
“We’re praying for the safety of all the firefighters,” Carrie added.
All roads in the area were opened Sunday afternoon.
Cause of the fire is under investigation.
What started as a truck and trailer fire in the afternoon of June 18, on Sky Ranch Road, about one and a half miles off Highway 41, quickly turned into a major fire, forcing the evacuation of about 150 children, family members, and camp staff from the Calvin Crest Christian Camp to Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church in Oakhurst.
The fire, between Sky Ranch Resort and Paradise Springs, was reported about 2:30 p.m., with seven air tankers, two helicopters, and nearly 20 fire engines responding from Cal Fire, Madera County, and US Forest Service. A day later, the management of the fire was taken over by the south Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team.
What started out as a volunteer evacuation for the camp and surrounding homes and campgrounds (Soquel, Texas Flat, and Grey’s Mountain), turned into a mandatory evacuation by Cal Fire, with assistance from the Madera County Sheriff’s Department.
Bill Ekhardt, director of finance and marketing at the camp, said camp staff had undergone three hours of fire evacuation training that ended just two hours before the fire broke out.
“When first alerted to plan for an evacuation, some of the staff thought it was a practice drill, but they soon learned it was for real,” Ekhardt said. “The entire staff was well prepared and well organized - the actual evacuation took less than a half hour and was completed without incident.”
The evacuation route was north on the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway to Beasore Road, coming out at Bass Lake. It was about an hour and a half drive to get from the camp to the church.
Michael Baird, church administrator, said within 15 minutes of hearing about the fire, the church staff prepared for the evacuees.
An 18-year-old staff member, visibly shaken, said she has been coming to the family camp every summer with her family since she was two-years-old. This was her first year to be at the camp as a staff member.
“I’m still a little in shock that this has happened ... It was scary but due to our training this morning, the evacuation went smoothly.”
Unfortunately, camp staff was forced to notify about 100 people who were going to be arriving last Sunday for a week-long Family Camp, along “Unique Families” of Fresno who were bringing 75 disabled adult campers for the week, that the camps had to be canceled. Camp staff is hoping officials will deem it safe for the staff to return to the camp Saturday to prepare for campers scheduled to arrive Sunday.
About eight American Red Cross staff members quickly arrived at the church to prepare for evacuees. Evacuation centers were set up at Oakhurst EV Church, 50443 School Road, and at the North Fork Rancheria Community Center, 56900 Kuhugib Road, across from the North Fork Post Office.
Since they only had the clothes they were wearing at the time of the evacuation, camp counselors and staff members were taken to a North Fork thrift store Saturday morning to receive a complete set of clothes. About 25 members of Sierra Vista Church picked pick up 50 members of the camp’s summer staff Saturday afternoon to take them to their homes for showers, and to spend the night with them.
Jessica Piffero, American Red Cross regional director of communications, said what started out as an evacuation center in Oakhurst, quickly turned into a full emergency shelter including sleeping cots, hot meals, and health services if needed.
“We have been recruiting heavily and training volunteers since the first of the year,” Piffero said. “We are totally prepared for any and all disasters this summer.”
Piffero added that the Red Cross is always thankful for financial donations to help the organization’s relief efforts. Donations can be made to the Central Valley Chapter by going to redcross.org.
Karen Guillemin-Kanawyer, Cal Fire fire prevention specialist, said fighting fires this summer will be more difficult due to the historic drought, heat and abundance of dead trees due to the bark beetle infestation throughout the region.
“Water sources like stock ponds and other small lakes, normally used to fight fire, are harder to come by and many are not available because they are dry,” Guillemin-Kanawyer said.
Visit readyforwildfire.org for information on how to prepare for an evacuation.
Note: For additional photos, see sierrastar.com.