Too close for comfort

Families forced to evacuate last week due to the Willow Fire creeping dangerously close to Cascadel Woods were deliriously happy to return home late Sunday evening after the mandatory evacuation order, in effect July 30, was lifted.

Even though they weren’t allowed into their homes until 9 p.m., residents began lining up at 7:30 p.m., anxious to return to some kind of normalcy in their lives.

Angelina Matthews and her son, Peter, who live in the Cascadel area, were two of the 25 residents taking advantage of the temporary Red Cross shelter, housed at the Oakhurst Community Center.

Angelina walked slowly with a cane due to damaged tendons and ligaments from rheumatoid arthritis. Even though she has family in the area, the home is too small to accommodate her, Peter, and the two chihuahuas, Peanut and Piper.

“This is the largest fire I’ve seen up near where I live in the last two years,” Angelina said.

She was very worried, given that she lives in a fifth wheel trailer on property that edged near the 2001 North Fork Fire break - property that isn’t maintained as much as it could be by the property owner.

Matthews had heard that firefighters would not defend her place because of that, and she anxiously awaited news. Imagine her excitement when she returned home to find her fifth wheel still standing, untouched.

“It gets rough sometimes, but I believe that God knows my needs ... and He has never not met those needs in all my 53 years. I’m just so grateful for the Red Cross,” Angelina added, “without them, I would have slept in my car instead of a cool, safe place. They did everything possible to accommodate my medical condition ... and the meals, they were lavish - sausage that smelled like Heaven, pancakes, scrambled eggs ....”

Chihuahuas Peanut and Piper also received quality care, thanks to the Central California Animal Disaster Team (CCADT), who watched over 27 animals impacted by the fire, including one 20-year-old goldfish and seven pit bull puppies.

The sheltered dogs were walked three times a day, and also spent time with their owners to help calm them during an anxiety-producing time. Early one morning, CCADT volunteer, Shirley Tarvin, took Peanut and Piper out to a grassy area. The pair were matter-of-factly doing their business until they saw Angelina rounding the corner. Then they practically choked themselves, little feet racing in place on stretched-to-the-max leashes, waiting to greet and kiss Angelina.

“Many people feel that their pets are family members. They may not evacuate if they can’t bring their pets with them,” CCADT President Naomi Flam said. “Past disasters have shown that people will also risk their lives to save their pets. The CCADT provides evacuation and emergency animal sheltering to encourage pet owners to leave a dangerous situation. We believe saving the lives of pets will help save human lives.”

Because of a good working partnership with area businesses/agencies, CCADT collaborated with the Madera County Sheriff’s Office to have pet owners escorted home to feed animals left sheltering in place - chickens, ducks, geese, and a 200-pound pot-bellied pig. Oakhurst Veterinary Hospital volunteered time and vaccinations for the seven pit bull puppies in quarantine.

Jessica Piffero Regional Director of Communications for Red Cross Central Valley called the generous outpouring from the community amazing.

“Area schools opened up the showers to the evacuees, pizza and grocery items were donated, and soap, towels and clean socks were collected. This community helped to make sure we had all the resources and volunteers in place to continue supporting the evacuees, if needed,” Piffero said.

“Many years ago, this community didn’t trust us, looked at us as an outsider,” Piffero continued, “but after years of working closely with community leaders in Oakhurst, there is now a mutual respect, and people know we’re to help where we can.”

Evacuee stories

Along with three of her widowed friends, all Cascadel residents, Caroline Nicholson evacuated to a fully-furnished home for sale in the North Fork area.

“It was kind of like we were roughing it, camping indoors,” Nicholson, a 25-year-Cascadel resident, said. “There was no television, no Internet, so we had to rely on the outside world to find out what was going on with the fire. Water was scarce, and we went out to eat hamburgers, fried chicken, pizza, or had dinner with friends.”

Calling it an adventure on some level, Nicholson was also frightened by how close the Willow Fire came.

“Cascadel escaped it again, but it’s still scary out there. They’re still fighting the fire completely around us,” Nicholson said. “I can look out my craft room window, and see all these dead trees on the ridge - just waiting to go up. One neighbor has 30 dead trees that need to come down, and another has 40 dead trees ... all our pines are dead here in Cascadel ... and it’s all fuel for fire.”

Nicholson returned home without her two cats - Samson and Ginger - to make sure it was safe before retrieving them. While she said she was glad to be home, it was also “eerie.”

“I’ve had to evacuate three times, and this was the worst,” Nicholson said. “I really didn’t know if I would have a home to come back to ... it’s the closest fire has ever come to Cascadel. We were praying the whole time, and families had prayer chains going.”

Nicholson then breaks down because of what she has been through the past few days, and for what her sister could face - she lives in Clear Lake and is under pre-evac notice due to the Lake Fire.

“California is on fire ... I’m just so thankful ... these firefighters are awesome.”

“There’s no place like home,” Chandy Stafford repeated over and over, savoring each sweet moment since her return late Sunday night, about 11 p.m.

“All I know is that home is the most beautiful word in the English language ... and we’re lucky,” Stafford said. “I’m just astonished that no homes or structures were lost. It’s just amazing what these firefighters have done.”

A Cascadel resident for two years, Stafford said that what she saw Tuesday night following the first community meeting in North Fork (July 28) concerned and frightened her.

“I went over to old Central Camp Road where you can get a good view of the fire,” Stafford said, “and I could see that it had blown up and was heading south towards Cascadel. It looked catastrophic. Normally, I would pack just the necessities, but this time I packed more because I didn’t know if I would have a home to return to.”

Stafford, who pet sits while families are out of town, stayed with friends. With her were her two dogs, and a couple clients (dogs).

“Living in the mountains, you have to be prepared in the fire season,” Stafford continued. “It’s just a reality of where we live, and with the drought and the beetle kill, awareness has to be even more heightened. It’s really nerve-wracking, though, that no matter how prepared you are, you have no control when the cause is human stupidity ... that family is going to have with this forever.”

Volney Donovan happily returned to her home, with her three cats early Monday morning. She waited out the evacuation with friends living on the other side of North Fork.

“This went so much better than I thought it would,” Donovan said. “We watched the fire from across town when they were doing the night burning and the wind was so strong. All we saw was flames and heavy smoke ... and I thought there was no way the firefighters could save Cascadel or Road 233.”

“It’s incredible what they’ve done,” she continued. “I think firefighting has evolved since the fire of 2001. Now it’s almost like a dance that’s been choreographed. These firefighters are angels ... absolute angels.”

Even though she’s back safe at home, Donovan remains concerned for future fires, given the ever-increasing fuel in the area.

“In the 2001 fire, I know for a fact that the forest service had a plan to clean up the area, to log the trees that could be logged, and clear the brush, but the plan was blocked by environmentalists. There has to be happy medium,” Donovan explained. “Part of what made this fire so difficult and dangerous for the firefighters was that areas that burned in 2001, were burning today, and some of the logs that were burning, rolled down hill.”

Sheltering in place

When Lisa and Ken Theis got the order to evacuate during the early stages of the Willow Fire, they really had no other option but to decline, sign the waiver of liability, and jump into Plan B - shelter in place.

With 112 alpacas, two of which are pregnant and due any day now, and numerous other animals (five dogs, several cats, a horse), it just wasn’t feasible for the owners of K-T Lee Ranch Alpacas, along Road 274, in North Fork to evacuate on such short notice. Even if they did have time, it would take about eight hours to safely evacuate all the animals.

“There are so many reasons that it’s just not advantageous to move these animals,” Lisa said. “They stress very easily, and moving is very stressful to them. When they stress, they can become compromised, which can lead to health issues; if an animal is already compromised, and stress is added, it can lead to death. They don’t like to be separated from each other - their friends, their family units. They simply do not like change.”

With the Willow Fire starting practically in their backyard, about 3/4 mile from their home, the Theis decided to hunker down. The alpacas calmly chewed their cud, cooled down in misters, seemingly unaware of the plumes of smoke billowing behind the house.

“We have a friend in Coarsegold who has a corral we can use,” Lisa continued, “but we don’t know the fencing, the parasite control, the stickers in the field. These are fiber animals. If there are stickers, fox tails, or burrs, the fiber collects it like Velcro ... and it can negatively affect their eyes and ears.”

They were as prepared as they could be - with defensible space, corrals for animals, ways to keep the corral grounds cool, fans to blow the smoke out, and a generator should they lose power.

“There was quite a bit of smoke behind us when the fire first broke out,” Lisa said, “and when it started climbing up the face of South Fork Bluffs, we could see the flames. While there’s always a concern when there’s a fire, we knew we weren’t leaving so we began putting our plan B into place.”

The animals were gathered from the 40-acre ranch, and placed in three secure, controllable corrals. The boys were separated from the girls because, as Lisa said, “We don’t need to deal with an orgy during the fire.” The animals will not be allowed to leave these corrals until the Willow Fire is completely under control.

North Fork resident, Art Tranberg’s home was not threatened by the fire. He is a retired battalion chief, who was in charge of fire prevention for 24 years, and as a safety officer for 20.

“I’ve been on fires that were stopped before they hit 10 acres all through the South Fork Bluffs area,” Tranberg said, “but this Willow Fire is hard to control. What we’re having to contend with is four years of drought, the end to logging and thinning trees, the fuel moisture is nil, and with the moisture so down, the brush and small trees are very flammable ... plus the thousands and thousands of dead Ponderosa Pines and the steep, rocky terrain.”

The firefighters worked 16 hour shifts on fire lines, and Tranberg saw crews from all across the state fighting the Willow Fire. When out-of-area firefighters aren’t used to this type of mountainous terrain, it can prove to be an added challenge “... but they still do it.”

Tranberg became quiet, struggling to gain composure, his voice cracking with emotion. “I saw a spotted fawn cross the road yesterday when I was driving up Road 274. He looked to be only a couple of weeks old, went up the bank and into someone’s yard. I stopped traffic so he could cross safely, but where’s the mother?”

He then turns his focus to the cause of the fire.

“I can’t believe someone would take their kids hiking and not pay attention to what’s going on. That kid is going to have to live with what he did for the rest of his life. So far, there has been no serious injuries to the firefighters or residents ... but all the forest animals were either injured or burned.”

It was animals that gave a few weary firefighters renewed faith. Donovan told of an encounter with an older woman who had been evacuated from her home along Road 233. This unidentified woman briefly spoke with a firefighter who had been mopping up: “We were fighting the fire and saw a mountain lion and her two cubs retreating,” he said, “and it made us feel like all we were doing was so worthwhile.”

“I truly want to be able to look out my window at home, and see real snow falling this winter ... not ash from the fires,” Stafford said. “I told my mom we dodged a major bullet on this one ... she said, no, you dodged a rocket.”