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1,800 acre fire started by juvenile, only 5% contained

The Willow Fire in Sierra National Forest between North Fork and Bass Lake jumped over a containment line at its southern edge last night and had grown to 1,739 acres by late Tuesday afternoon, with five percent containment, according to public information officer Cody Norris.

A juvenile male suspect was identified Tuesday as the cause of the fire when he lit pine branches ablaze that fell to the forest floor and grew out of control.

Madera County District Attorney David Linn said the boy’s family called 911 to report the fire, and tried to put it out. Authorities will not release further details such as the boy’s age, name, or hometown.

The incident is unrelated to a teenager serving one year of probation for starting 13 fires in the Oakhurst area between July and September last year.

Spot fires near the inferno’s southern end seen Monday afternoon contributed to the jump and additional calls for tanker support around 7 p.m., Norris said.

Norris said crews were hard at work last night to build a new containment line in the fire’s southern area, as the fire was creeping towards Wild Rose Lane, Pitcher Creek, and the old mill site.

The Willow Fire was sparked about 2 p.m., Saturday, July 25, east of Malum Ridge Road (274), located to the northern edge of the footprint left by the 2001 North Fork Fire.

Firefighting personnel grew to 1,215 Tuesday from about 900 the day before, including support by 71 engines, 21 hand crews, 16 bulldozers, 23 water tenders, 8 helicopters, and 5 air tankers.

Fire crews with the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire, under direction of the South Central Sierra Incident Management Team, will continue to build containment lines around the inferno’s perimeter today using both direct and indirect attack strategies.

A “Type 2” team, similar to the team that fought the recent Sky Fire, was called in with additional equipment and staff to assist. Fire crews are staging at the old North Fork mill site on Road 225.

Hand crews and engines have made positive progress on the ground, supported by heavy air support, information officers said, but higher temperatures from previous days, accompanied by steep, rugged terrain and a prevalence of dead trees will make efforts more difficult.

Ron Stillwell, a retired U.S. Forest Service firefighter from the North Fork Ranger District now living in Colorado, said he “hated” seeing news about the Willow Fire as it felt like “seeing an old friend get hurt.”

“My heart and soul is in the Sierras since I lived, worked, and played in them most of my life,” Stillwell said. “I wish the best of luck to my firefighting brothers on that fire, and that they fight it safely and look out for each other always.”

Along with Madera County Sheriff’s Department deputies, personnel instituted mandatory evacuations on the east side of Road 274, from Willow Canyon Drive to Central Camp, as well as Douglas Ranger Station Road. Some residents of the area refused to evacuate. Gaggs, Whiskers, and Whiskey Falls campgrounds were evacuated.

Road 274 was reopened between Bass Lake and North Fork Monday after days of closure. Authorities asked motorists to drive safe as fire crews are still in the area.

An ‘advisory’ evacuation was given to residents of the Marina View subdivision at the east end of Bass Lake, and for the Cascadel Woods subdivision outside North Fork. Although there are about 450 homes in the surrounding area of the fire, no homes are currently in immediate danger according to Daniel Tune of the Sierra National Forest.

Tune said a good-sized blanket of fire retardant has been dropped by aircraft in front of the northern and southern edges of the fire which should help slow it down.

The fire is in an area that has a heavy concentration of fallen dead trees from previous fires, drought, and bark beetle kills.

The American Red Cross of Central California established an evacuation shelter at the Oakhurst Community Center, 39800 Road 425B, but is only open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. as no evacuees are reportedly using the facilities to sleep overnight.

The Central California Animal Disaster Team can shelter small animals at the center. Anyone with larger animals, such as horses, were asked to call Naomi Flam at (559) 433-9663, to arrange taking animals to the Coarsegold Rodeo grounds.

This is the third large fire in the Mountain Area this summer. The Sky Fire, that started June 18 on Sky Ranch Road, burned 500 acres. The Corrine fire, that started between North Fork and Auberry, six and a half hours after the Sky Fire, burned 920 acres. No homes were lost and there was just one minor injury to a firefighter from the two fires.

At the peak of the Sky and Corrine fires, more than 2,650 fire personnel, 157 engines, nine air tankers, 10 helicopters, 27 water tenders, 20 bulldozers, 64 hand crews, and additional support were involved in fighting the two blazes.

Since January of this year, more than 5,200 wildfires have been sparked across California, with more than 74,000 acres scorched by flames.

Health warning

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.

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