Oakhurst welcomes Detwiler Fire evacuees with open arms

Marcus Gonsalves, a member of Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church, reads a story to two children from Mariposa.
Marcus Gonsalves, a member of Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church, reads a story to two children from Mariposa. Sierra Star

More than 250 residents found a safe place to sleep last week at five different Red Cross shelters, three in Oakhurst, due to Detwiler Fire evacuations.

The Oakhurst shelters were set up at Evangelical Free Church on School Road (427), Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church on Highway 41, and Mountain Christian Center behind True Value Hardware off Highway 49.

Trained Red Cross volunteers, including a nurse for those with special medical needs, and members of the church were on hand at each location to provide lodging, meals, health services, and anything else needed to make those displaced from their homes as comfortable as possible.

“In a matter of hours on July 19, our volunteers opened or moved five different shelters, and provided relief to hundreds of residents,” said Red Cross Executive Director Barry Falke. “It was a huge undertaking, but our volunteers rose to the challenge to make sure that all shelter residents were safe and comfortable.”

“Hands down these churches have been incredible to work with - every single time we have had to open a shelter in this community, the churches have opened their doors to the Red Cross and those in need,” added Red Cross Public Information Officer Jessica Piffero.

Evangelical Free Church

At Evangelical Free Church, volunteers Nancy Taylor and Jinnie Day were amicably chatting while folding donated clothing. Taylor, Oakhurst resident and Mountain Community Woman member, believes in helping out wherever she can. She worked the evacuation shelter at the Oakhurst Community Center during the Courtney Fire in September 2014, and is planning on becoming a Red Cross volunteer.

“I want to give back to the community, and feel fortunate that I didn’t have to evacuate,” Taylor said.

Her co-volunteer (and new friend), Day, works for Mariposa County. Because her office was closed last week, she decided to come out to help those displaced due to the fire.

The church sheltered about 100 people, with 30-40 church volunteers coming in and out when they had time.

EV Free Church member and volunteer, Nancy Walker,79, of Coarsegold, was on site since day one.

“I wander up and down the halls, and if someone wants something, they tap my shoulder,” said Walker, who has been volunteering for 60 years. “These people need comfort right now. I was supposed to volunteer at Chowchilla Prison today (July 20), but this is the third day these people have been here and I knew they would be coming out of shock, ready to talk. The first couple of days, it was pretty quiet around here because they were sticking to themselves. Now they’re talking more and connecting with each other.”

When Raley’s pulled in the parking lot to drop off lunch, one woman (Donna Stephens) poked her head out a back door to yell, “Raley’s is awesome.”

Brenn Craib, Raley’s customer service team leader, carried in boxes while Assistant Store Team Leader Mark Conti helped fill a vehicle with lunches, for delivery to the other two Oakhurst evacuation sites.

“It’s important to give,” Conti said. “Raley’s has been part of this community for 30-plus years. We love our community and want to help out in this time of need.”

While the physical needs of the evacuees were tended to, Gary Milner, church administrator and elder focused on the spiritual needs.

“I’ve had the opportunity to go down and talk to some of these folks, to pray with them when they wanted, and held a devotional prayer meeting for those who wanted to attend,” Milner said. “People are worried about their homes, and wonder when they can go home.”

This is the third or fourth year this church has opened as an emergency evacuation center.

“This is God’s church and we are here to be the stewards of it,” Milner added, “to use it for His glory, to show the love of Christ to those in our community, and to serve those around us through Him.”

Milner said people have been very generous, dropping off food, water, clothing items and necessities.

“The outpouring from the community has been absolutely amazing, but not surprising,” Milner continued. “Southgate brought food. Starbucks has provided coffee. Olive Garden provided dinner. And Raley’s has dropped off lunches and dinners, it seems like they bring it in by the truckload. There are organizations and people you can count on during tough times - and Raley’s is one of them. They are absolutely wonderful ... they’re over the top.”

Raley’s has had a partnership with the Red Cross for about four years.

“During the past seven days, we have provided a little more than 2,000 meals, and will continue to do so as long as there is a need,” said Raley’s Store Team Leader Rob Kiehlmeier. “I spent some time at the shelters, sitting and talking with some of the evacuees, who told me there wasn’t anything they could eat, so we rethought the meals to include vegetarian and diabetic options.”

Kiehlmeier was quick to give kudos to team members who spent long hours baking chicken and tri tip, doing the prep work, making sandwiches and putting meals together.

“They dug in to get those things done,” Kiehlmeier said, “in addition to their normal job duties. They’re the ones who really made this happen.”

Even though the shelters in Oakhurst have now closed, Kiehlmeier said Raley’s will continue to provide meals to those now sheltered in Mariposa as long as needed.

“Then there’s the Red Cross,” Milner continued. “All the volunteers committed a huge amount of personal time, and the care they’ve shown to all these evacuees has been amazing.”

From the time Red Cross evacuation centers opened through dinner Sunday (July 23), more than 13,000 meals and snacks had been served to those displaced due to the Detwiler Fire.

Casinos Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino and Table Mountain brought in more than 2,200 bottles of water. Vons donated two palettes of bottled water and bananas.

As for the smaller animals, the Central California Animal Disaster Team quickly set up emergency shelters. According to CCADT shelter manager Steve Bell, there were 60 dogs, 65 cats and seven birds safely housed at EV Free.

Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church

Helping out at Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church was the office staff of six, and 15 members of the congregation.

Pastor Rick Lemberg said he made just two calls and it didn’t take long for people to start showing up to help with the 60 who had been placed at the church.

“The churches have responded well to this situation, as has the whole community,” Lemberg said.

Marcus Gonsalves has been a church member for five years and called it a blessing for the church family to come together to help Mariposa residents.

“People have been scared of the unknown and my job has been to provide an ear or a shoulder to cry on. I’ve prayed with people and have tried to comfort them the best I could,” Gonsalves said. “I’ve enjoyed talking with them (the evacuees) and helping them feel welcomed, safe and loved.”

Evacuee Dinah Oppenheim, who (by Saturday) said it was day five for she and her husband, David, called out a special thank you to Marcus “who made us all feel welcome.”

Volunteer George Stillman shuttled appreciative people to Yosemite High School for a daily shower. A retired fireman, he said it’s all about a mountain community helping a mountain community.

“This is what our church does,” Stillman said. “We’re here when we’re needed and very happy to help.”

The church also housed evacuees’ smaller animals including 31 dogs, 35 cats, three birds and a duck. When the air conditioning in the animal rooms temporarily malfunctioned, CVS Pharmacy provided two large box fans to help keep the animals comfortable.

Mountain Christian Center

At Mountain Christian Center, where space was provided for the 500 people who attended the July 19 fire information meeting, another 100 residents from Mariposa were housed.

Although Mariposa residents Barbara Steggall and husband Merle joined others at the shelter, she was not one to sit around, given that she was a former Red Cross volunteer for 10 years. She helped in the kitchen, doing whatever else she could to help out.

“I’m happy to help ... the church has been very welcoming and its so nice and clean here - I can’t think of any other place I’d like to be,” Barbara said.


The Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), designed to work in conjunction with the Red Cross, quickly set up a receiving area in the Sierra Star parking lot for donations of perishable food, clothing, and personal hygiene supplies.

More than 20 volunteer VOAD members shared time at the booth, which was open 7 a.m. to dusk to receive donations, which were then delivered to the three churches where shelters had been established in Oakhurst. .

Laura Norman is a Sierra Tel employee and chairperson of VOAD, which was organized two years ago.

“This community never ceases to amaze me with its generosity,” Norman said. “People are giving what they are able to - from a few cans of food from some people to those who have gone shopping specifically for items to donate. One man drove up yesterday, opened his wallet, pulled out $6 and said this is all I have, but I want to donate it.”

Norman said she was impressed with the thoughtfulness people have shown through their donations.

“Many of these Mariposa residents had less than three minutes to evacuate - and people have given some thought about what a person may need under those circumstances and brought us diabetic test strips, all kinds of personal hygiene items, baby diapers and new undergarments,” Norman added.

Norman said once the needs were met in Oakhurst, supplies would be taken to the shelter in Sonora. She also reminded the community that recovery from a disaster can be a long process.

Details: VOAD, (559) 683-4911.