As mandatory evacuation orders began to lift, Red Cross emergency shelters in Oakhurst thinned out over the weekend. Many evacuees returned to Mariposa, either to homes for those living in town, or to a temporary Red Cross shelter set up at the Mariposa Elementary School.
Disabled Vietnam veteran Mike Correia, who has stayed at the Evangelical Free Church shelter in Oakhurst these past few days, will head to the school later this afternoon. Sadly, he is one of the less fortunate, learning early on that he has little to return to.
The home he has rented in Mt. Bullion since 2010 burned to the ground. When he first heard the news on Tuesday, he couldn’t help but cry, but said he later felt relief because he wouldn’t have to spend days worrying whether or not his home was still standing.
“I lost everything in the fire except one change of clothing, important papers, my meds, and miraculously, my 1964 antique Chevy, which was parked in a small clearing near the home,” Correia said.
Unable to walk and wheelchair-bound, Correia plans to spend about five days at the Mariposa shelter, before moving to his permanent location in Merced, where he will be closer to family.
“EV Free is filled with wonderful people, all these volunteers,” Correia said. “Whatever someone needed, it was here. As for my future, I have to think positive, I have to ... the good Lord will provide.”
Just then a man in a pick-up drove by, poked his head out the window and asked Correia how he was doing. Correia gave him a big smile, a sturdy thumbs up and said, “Life is good.” The other man echoed that sentiment before driving off.
Other evacuees temporarily housed at the Sierra Vista Presbyterian Red Cross Shelter continued to wait for clearance.
Dinah Oppenheim and Nancy Francis met at the shelter, and became fast friends. Both were relieved to learn that their homes were intact, even though they can’t return because they have no power.
The Oppenheims, who live seven miles outside Mariposa, saw the flames Sunday afternoon, while boating on Lake McClure.
“We had no pre-evac notice,” Oppenheim said. “Ash was falling and we just decided it was time to go.”
She and her husband David, loaded up their three cats and three horses (two theirs and the other their neighbor’s).
“Our neighbor was in Hawaii and he called asking us to get his 28-year-old Gelding, who hasn’t been in a trailer for 10 years,” Oppenheim said, “but he loaded like a champ. We didn’t know where to go. We had three horses ... three cats screaming in their carriers, and were sitting in heavy smoke.”
After a referral from Hoof ‘n Paw Veterinary Hospital, the horses were left in good hands at the Coarsegold Rodeo Grounds. The couple could then settle in at the shelter.
While she’s grateful to the church, the Red Cross, the rodeo grounds and the Central California Animal Disaster Team, who have been watching over her cats, Oppenheim is ready to go home.
“This is day five, and the experience has been awful. We have no power. We have a freezer full of food rotting at home. We don’t know when we can go back,” and then to add a little lightness, she added, “I’m so thankful for the people at the church, who have all been so kind and sweet to us. We’re overfed, and with snacks every hour, we’ll all have to go on diets.”
Francis and husband Steve weren’t sure they would have to evacuate, but were ready early Tuesday just in case. Then they lost power and knew it was time to head out with their four dogs, three cats and parrot.
“We tried to get the goats in the back of the truck, but they wouldn’t cooperate at all, so we had to leave them behind. The animals were so stressed out,” Francis recalled. “We thought we’d be back the next day so didn’t think it was any big deal.”
But they weren’t back the next day. Francis called the Mariposa Sheriff’s Department about her goats, and officers picked them up, depositing them safely at the fairgrounds.
“The firefighters, the sheriff’s department, the church, the Red Cross, the community ... everyone has been so amazing,” Francis said.
Fellow evacuee Ken Jorgensen, has also been staying at Sierra Vista with his wife, Joyce, and dogs Rex and Sassy. Because Sassy, who had been severely abused before becoming a part of the Jorgensen family, was extremely frightened, the couple slept in their truck in the church parking lot. Ken said putting Sassy in a cage would put her back six months. She stood well protected and hidden behind Ken’s legs, with her tail tucked between her own, as he spoke.
He planned on packing everything up last weekend to head back home. The first thing he would do once home was hook up the generator, if needed. The second thing was shave.
On Sunday night, July 23, there was a combined total of 144 in all five shelters, including 13 at EV Free, and two at Sierra Vista. The third Oakhurst shelter, Mountain Christian, closed that day.
Because of the drop in numbers, two shelters remain - one at Mariposa Elementary School and the other at Mother Lode Fairgrounds in Sonora.
At the height of the evacuation centers, there were close to 300 seeking shelter.
“On Sunday and Monday (July 16-17), there were only a handful of people at the elementary school,” said Red Cross Public Information Officer Jessica Piffero. “It was just another day of disaster response. Then it (the fire) took off, and in a matter of hours, we had to open five shelters to house hundreds of people.”
Piffero added that Red Cross has transitioned from a sheltering operation to a recovery operation as those affected begin to pick up the pieces. “We’ve had recovery trucks coming in since Saturday with supplies like clean-up kits with shovels, rakes and gloves. We have Emergency Red Cross vehicles out in the field, visiting shelters, driving into damaged areas to see what kind of resources we can provide.”
A Red Cross public information line has been established for anyone looking for information - (559) 343-2549.
To donate to Red Cross Disaster Relief, see www.redcross.org, or call (800) Red Cross. You can also text “RED CROSS” to 91999 to make a $10 donation to your local Red Cross.
NOTE: For videos and additional photos, see www.sierrastar.com.