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“Confidence is increasing by the hour”

Firefighting officials provided a very positive update on the status of the Willow Fire to a crowd of more than 150 people Saturday afternoon.

“Within a couple days, we hope to have containment around 75 to 80%,” Incident Commander David Cooper told the audience at North Fork Town Hall. “It’s looking really good.”

Fire crews made additional progress Saturday completing a burning operation which was started the night before. Overnight crews began mopping up and extinguishing hot spots along the fire perimeter on the southern flank. Evacuation orders remain in place due to hots spots along the fire perimeter on the southern and northern flanks of the fire.

The areas where containment lines are already established, crews will begin fire line suppression repair and continue with mop-up operations. Air resources will support ground crew as needed.

The Willow Fire has claimed a reported 5,656 acres between North Fork and Bass Lake, was 60% contained Sunday morning. As many as 1,958 personnel have been fighting the flames along with 142 engines, 20 bulldozers, 40 hand crews, 35 water tenders, 8 helicopters, and 6 air tankers including a DC10.

The California National Guard also has a fleet of nine helicopters scheduled to help battle the Willow Fire, and a federal BAER (Burned Area Emergency Response) team is en route to help with cleanup and other efforts.

Costs of fighting the eight-day fire have reached $10.5 million. More than 1.6 million gallons of water, pulled from Bass Lake and other nearby sources, has been used in both water and flame retardant drops.

Mandatory evacuations remained in place for areas in both the Cascadel Woods subdivision and near Douglas Ranger Station Road. Cooper, along with other officials, said hopefully by Monday some of those orders could be lifted after the areas are reviewed.

Marcie Rockholt, who lives in Oakhurst, has been housing two of her friends from Cascadel Woods as well as their four cats and a dog over the last several days.

She said one of her friends checks on their home every day and she, like all others, couldn’t wait to see them return home.

“They’re very dear friends of mine,” Rockholt said. “It’s hard to leave your house in Cascadel, it’s just beautiful in there ... they just want to go home. I can’t wait to see them get home safe, and soon.”

The next few days are “pivotal” in following the current plan and possibly allowing those evacuation orders to be lifted, Cooper said.

Firefighters are hard at work to tie the wildfire’s southeastern flank, shortly north of Peckinpah Creek and west of Whisky Falls, to its eastern region near the blaze’s origin at Road 274 and Willow Canyon Road.

Backfires have been in place for days about a mile north of Cascadel Woods to push the flames in that direction along a containment line near Road 233, Cooper said, and all lines remained strong overnight with no spot fires jumping across.

“We brought the fire down past that line last night, and resources are going in behind it,” Cooper said. “They’re starting to mop up and secure that line further.”

Smoke from those controlled backburns was heading largely uphill and away from downhill areas like Cascadel, Cooper said.

“You can’t ask for smoke like that to do any better of a job than it is,” Cooper said.

No structures have been lost or damaged since the conflagration began on July 25, allegedly when a boy played with a lighter from his family’s toolbox and was unable to stop the growing fire, though he and family members tried to put it out and reported it immediately to authorities.

The fire’s other uncontrolled section, to the north across 7 Rock, was all but “a done deal” for containment, Stanislaus National Forest Incident Commander Robert Laeng said.

“We have a high confidence level the north is a done deal but we’re not 100%,” Laeng said. “We don’t want to mislead anybody.”

To reach 100% containment and call and end to the blaze, Cooper said firefighters will be in the area for an expected two to three additional weeks as they monitor the fire’s crawl to a complete closure.

He said along the way, barring any unfortunate changes to temperatures or winds, crews will start being demobilized around the end of next week, which is another positive sign.

“Our team is hoping to be complete by the end of next week,” Cooper said, “to finish up and do repair work. That will be ongoing after that, with minimal resources.

“Our feeling is in the next couple days all threats will be minimized,” he added.

The Red Cross has an evacuation shelter established at the Oakhurst Community Center, located at 39800 Fresno Flats Road (425B).

Small animals can also be housed at that shelter by the Central California Animal Disaster Team.

An interactive map of the Willow Fire, showcasing its growth since its start on July 25, is available at http://ow.ly/Qm4GW.

Fire details can be seen at http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/4413/ or by calling (559) 877-7449.

Charges against the boy who allegedly started the fire will be filed sometime next week, Madera County District Attorney David Linn said, as his office receives additional reports on the fire’s progress and any damages.

A state of emergency was declared by Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday across California, requiring additional aid from all state agencies as more than 8,000 firefighters battle at least 18 wildfires.

Smoke causes health concerns

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.

Smoke masks

Wildfire smoke masks are available at the North Fork Market, the Sierra Star office in Oakhurst, Coarsegold Pharmacy, True Value Home Center in Oakhurst, Sierra Telephone, Madera County Fire Station 12 in Oakhurst, and the Madera County Sheriff’s Department in Oakhurst.

The masks are free and were donated by Camarena Health.

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