The Grove springs into action, accepting overflow fire evacuees

Francoise Asher gently kisses the head of her dog, Mr. Ferret, outside her tent, pitched in the church parking lot.
Francoise Asher gently kisses the head of her dog, Mr. Ferret, outside her tent, pitched in the church parking lot. Sierra Star

Francoise Asher and her small dog, Mr. Ferret, were ordered to evacuate Tuesday night. That first night Asher camped out in the mountains with friends, so by the time she headed into Oakhurst the following day, the Red Cross emergency shelter at EV Free Church was filled to capacity. There simply was no room for Asher and her pet.

As she drove down School Road, Asher spotted a few of her Mariposa neighbors in the parking lot of The Grove at the Landing Church across the street from Yosemite High School. She learned she was welcome there, pitched her tent under a shady tree, where she and Mr. Ferret spent the night safely surrounded by familiarity.

Not one of the designated Red Cross emergency centers, The Grove at the Landing in Oakhurst, as well as its sister church The Grove in Ahwahnee, had sprung into action, becoming impromptu shelters in response to the overflow of evacuees.

“When the fire broke out, I was up at a youth camp in Sonora with church youth member Joseph Sandifer,” said Grove Counseling Pastor Larry Park. “We decided we needed to head home to open our churches. It’s community first with us. Our motto is love well, and I feel we’re doing that by doing this ... I just don’t know if we’re doing enough.”

From the faces of the 17 or so who spent the night, the church has been more than accommodating. Volunteers come in and out during the day, but Pastor Park and his wife, Jill, have been staying in a fifth-wheeler behind the church, where they are accessible 24/7. The church provides breakfast, lunch and dinner, a cool place to rest during the day and a safe spot at night. While there are no showers, there are large bathroom sinks and a bin with small bottles of shampoo, conditioners, soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes. They also accept evacuees with small animals. (The Grove in Ahwahnee is taking in larger animals).

John Hamblett, who evacuated with his girlfriend Becca Ramsey, three dogs, two cats, a bearded dragon and a cockatiel was thankful he found a secure spot for his animal menagerie.

Outside, Early Hilgerson from Midpines, entertained fellow evacuee Kaley Kimbro, 15, by flying his drone - one of the toys he made sure to snag before leaving the house.

Inside, appreciative evacuees filled idle hours helping out where they could. Ramsey cleaned tables, while Asher was busy with a wet sponge mopping counter tops. Some sat quietly using phones or laptops for updates on the fire.

“The people staying here ask if there is anything they can do, so I put them to work,” Jill said, holding a “To Do” list she had just written on a paper plate.

“What we’re doing here wouldn’t be possible without this community,” Larry said. “We are a community that thrives together, and it’s just awesome meeting the needs of these people who have been displaced.”

When Asher is able to return home, she said that she (along with some of her displaced neighbors) plans on making a donation to the church.

By the end of the day, one woman had dropped off seven bags of clothes, blankets and pillows. Others had stopped by with bottled water, lawn chairs, fruits or cookies, always asking if anything else was needed before leaving.

“Thank you firefighters,” Asher said, “and I’m so grateful for this church. Mariposa people can’t thank Oakhurst enough.”