With the mandatory evacuation orders due to the Detwiler Fire in Mariposa County, hundreds of affected residents flooded into evacuation centers Tuesday, July 18, including the Evangelical Free Church on School Road (427) in Oakhurst.
Mariposa resident Becky Collins stood in the church parking lot, with one truck filled with her six dogs and her 9-month-old granddaughter Danibrooke Wilkerson napping inside. The bed of the second truck was piled high with camping equipment.
Collins said she, her daughter Jheri Wilkerson and granddaughter were heading up to high country to get out of the smoke. She hoped she had a home to return to, shaking her head in disbelief (as of July 21, 58 homes were destroyed).
This was the second time in two weeks she had been ordered to evacuate. The first was during the Spring Fire, which began July 2 and burned a total of 225 acres.
Fellow evacuee and confirmed bachelor, Gary Nolen, who left with his cat Spook, said, “I’ve lived through tornadoes in Oklahoma, through tsunamis in Hawaii, and I’ve never had to evacuate ... until now.”
American Red Cross volunteer, Kelly Peck, said that even though the temporary emergency shelter had been open just a couple of hours by late afternoon on the 18th, more than 100 had already signed in for assistance. More came to Oakhurst after being relocated from a shelter in Mariposa. Because of the large turn-out, two other Oakhurst shelters quickly opened, one at Mountain Christian Center and the other at Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church, where another 100 spent the night.
The following morning, evacuees at Sierra Vista were monitoring cell phones to get any updates they could on the fire’s progress and containment numbers.
The Darcy family of 10 was grateful for the safe shelter, and more importantly that they were together.
“A Cal Fire representative from Mariposa came out this morning (July 19) and told us that the fire will keep doubling in size because there’s so much dead fuel and not enough resources,” said father Mike, who works as a carpenter in Yosemite National Park.
“It just doesn’t seem real,” his wife Pam added, eyes down and head lowered. “There are so many different thoughts going through my mind right now ... thoughts like moving to the valley, getting out of the mountains, but I really don’t want to leave here.”
Pam said they initially were called on the phone and warned to be prepared. Then she got the text message. Her children told her, “let’s wait,” Pam explained, “but our 20-year-old son Michael only has one lung. He was breathing ash, and I said ‘no, we need to go now.’”
With a disabled son and a teen daughter Mykaeah, 16, with diabetes, the family had medical supplies and medications to worry about. Add a cat and dog, and there simply was no room - or time - for photos or mementos.
“We’ve lived up here since the 1970s and never had to evacuate,” Mike said, “and now, we’ve evacuated twice in two weeks.”
“This fire is a whole lot scarier than the Spring Fire,” Pam added. “It’s way bigger, more intense. There’s ash flying everywhere, starting spot fires. We just don’t know what we’re going back to ... if anything.”
“If this had happened any where else, we wouldn’t all be checking in with each other,” their married daughter Amy Stanfill said, wandering around in her spotted pajama bottoms. “I lived in Vegas and everyone kept to themselves. It’s not like here. I wouldn’t want to live or be anywhere else.”
Even though Michael King knew of the possibility that he and his family would have to evacuate, he still wasn’t prepared when the time came.
“You want to take everything,” King said, “all these clothes, that favorite coffee cup. But you don’t need that stuff. I grabbed the family (wife, Sharon, and sons Jed, 9, and Jak, 2). As long as the boys are with mom, and as long as mom is with me, the boys know they’re safe.”
The Kings drove straight to the store to purchase, ice, water and food.
“A kind soul recognized that we may be in trouble ... he gave me a fistful of bills. It was just a blessing. He saw I was trying to take care of my family.”
When they first arrived at the Red Cross shelter at Sierra Vista, King said there were only a few cars. In the brief time it took him to run out to gas up the vehicle and return to the shelter, the parking lot was full and people were everywhere.
While King chatted with other evacuees, his older son, Jed, spent the morning with other displaced children - playing games like tag and hide and seek.
Trying to bring a bit of normalcy into her life, Kathleen Marcel walked the church grounds with her mom’s poodle, Sassy.
When telling her story, Marcel said that a burned leaf burned landed squarely on her mother’s property in Midpines. She said she was absolutely amazed that the leaf, though completely burned, was still intact. Her next thought was how easily spot fires could occur.
“I decided to water down the house, to water down the property, to try to get pine needles off the roof, to do everything in my power,” Marcel said. “My mom made an off-the-cuff comment ‘I’m not sure that’s going to make a difference.’ I looked up and the sky was dark and ominous, the sun was deep deep red, it was raining ash, it was scarey, and here I was hosing down the place. We got the notice to leave shortly thereafter.”
The two grabbed the basic necessities, the animals (two cats and three dogs), along with family photos and keepsakes.
Marcel was grateful for safe housing, for tireless firefighters and for dedicated Red Cross workers, who went above and beyond when her mom appeared to be missing.
“I had a bit of a scare when I couldn’t locate my mom (in her late 70s) at the shelter,” Marcel said. “But we found her safe and sound, asleep in her car surrounded by her animals. She was worried about them. They’re her babies.”
By Friday morning (July 21), evacuation centers remained full, with about 250 evacuees and their pets at the three churches. By that time, the Detwiler Fire had burned more than 74,000 acres and was only 15% contained.
More than 80 Red Cross workers from around the state came to the Central Valley to support the Detwiler Fire relief efforts, with even more volunteers and resources expected, as the Red Cross continues to provide relief and comfort to hundreds of residents affected by evacuations.