Railroad Fire meeting: Highway 41 to Yosemite closed indefinitely, Fish Camp intact

A photo of smoke from the Railroad Fire in Fish Camp, taken near the Oakhurst Grocery Outlet.
A photo of smoke from the Railroad Fire in Fish Camp, taken near the Oakhurst Grocery Outlet. Sierra Star

Livestream of meeting at Oakhurst Community Center on the #RailroadFire.UPDATE (9 p.m.): Hi everyone! Mark from the Sierra Star here, and the reporter who shot this live video from tonight's meeting (Aug. 31) about the fire at Oakhurst Community Center. There's a lot of time leading up to information about the fire as I move in, and introductions are given. So if you want to skip straight ahead to updates from the incident commander Deron Mills, and others working on this blaze, it all starts right around 15 minutes in.Thanks for watching! And apologies for any disruptions in quality or noise, my hand shakiness, this was all shot with my smartphone.

Posted by Sierra Star Online on Thursday, August 31, 2017

At least 300 people, and likely many more, crowded into Oakhurst Community Center Thursday night for an update on efforts to put an end to the growing Railroad Fire in Fish Camp.

By Thursday night, the Railroad Fire was at 2,185 acres and 0% contained. Efforts look good on the western, southwestern and northern portions of the fire, officials said, in the Westfall, Fish Camp, and Hogan’s Mountain areas.

But to the southeast approaching Sugar Pine, and more prominently to the east along Big Creek toward Speckerman Mountain, fire activity remains strongest and mostly uncontained, they said.

“Overall, we feel a great deal better today than we did yesterday,” Incident Commander Deron Mills said. “There’s been less instability in the atmosphere and we’ve been able to get more resources in there to make good progress.”

From efforts on each flank of the blaze, to whether homes were safe or when Highway 41 would reopen, here are some of the key points from the meeting.

A livestream of the entire meeting is available above, or on the Sierra Star Facebook page (www.facebook.com/TheSierraStar), or by clicking here (information on the fire starts around 15 minutes in).

When will Highway 41 reopen to Yosemite?

Too early to tell. Mills said though many, including the public and officials from Yosemite National Park want it open as soon as possible, the highest priority is safety.

“Our number one objective is return the area to a sense of normalcy,” Mills said. “So our priority is to get people back into their homes, get the highway open, get the tourism going, and get the south gate to Yosemite open.”

But, an information officer added, it’s too early to predict when the highway will be safe, given the dangers of dead trees and jumping flames which have hopped across the road in previous days.

Highway 41 remains closed in the Cedar Valley area, north of Oakhurst, alongside other road closures in places close to the blaze.

How many homes have been destroyed?

The number of destroyed structures remains the same as previous days, at seven, Madera County Sheriff Jay Varney said. Six of them were homes, and one was a type of storage unit. All the homes are located in Madera County, he added, and were centralized around where the fire started on Tuesday, along Highway 41 near Mill Canyon Road and Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad.

Varney said not all those who have lost their homes have been informed, and damage assessment teams are still at work to prepare that information.

Is Sugar Pine okay? What about Fish Camp? Tenaya Lodge?

In a general sense, progress on the fire is looking good.

When the meeting opened to asking questions, one resident started by saying the entirety of Sugar Pine was in attendance. Along with Sugar Pine, all of Fish Camp and all enclosed homes or locations, such as Tenaya Lodge, Narrow Gauge Inn, Sugar Pine Railroad, and several Christian camps were forced to evacuate in previous days.

She asked if the fire was moving toward Sugar Pine or any other areas.

“Forward progress has been stopped to the north,” said Jeff Hinson, operations section chief in reference to what’s been called Division Bravo (see the map below for specifics). “Fish Camp is okay, and there’s a structure protection group stationed there to help make sure it stays that way.”

As to Sugar Pine, located southeast of the blaze’s progression map in Division Whiskey, things were trickier, Hinson said.

“We’ve been on mop up in that area,” Hinson said, “but there’s some spot fires that have been popping up in that direction. There was one maybe about 30 to 40 acres, but it’s burning back towards itself.”

The largest progression of the fire has been almost directly east from where it started on Tuesday, generally near the railroad, Hinson said. It was burning along Big Creek towards Big Sandy Campground, which was evacuated on Thursday. Resources have been moved there to help stop the flames. The fire is about a mile from Sugar Pine, Hinson said, and any spot fires across Jackson Road to the north have been quickly knocked out.

“That’s quite a bit of distance in the wildland fire arena,” Hinson added.

As for the evacuation advisory on Sky Ranch Road, that’s mainly for those who live in forested land. It’s not mandatory, simply an advisory to be ready in case the fire moves south.

Towards the southwest, flames have largely been stopped as well, Hinson said. That means Ahwahnee is not under threat.

Mills added that 0% containment isn’t as negative as it sounds, being that it takes time to ensure an area is properly under control before reporting any progress.

“We do expect to show you we are making progress by some time tomorrow,” Mills said. “So don’t think just because we’re showing 0%, that we’re not making headway out there.”

Cedar Valley is far from the fire, Bass Lake District Ranger Denise Tolmie added.

Mills also noted he there’s minimal chances the inferno will move towards Wawona in Yosemite. The Empire and South Fork fires remain aflame in that general area, and continue to create smoky skies.

Around the end of the meeting, praise was offered towards firefighters and all other agencies or crews assisting with the Railroad Fire, and the crowd delivered a standing ovation.

How can I learn more?

The South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team, which is overseeing efforts on the Railroad Fire, can be reached by phone at (559) 373-0040. More information is available by visiting https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5553/, or the Sierra National Forest’s Facebook or Twitter pages. The Mariposa and Madera County sheriff’s offices also provide updates on their Facebook pages. Members of the public can also text “RAILROADFIRE” (one word) to 888777 to receive regular updates in their area.

Side notes

All mail for Fish Camp residents is located at the Oakhurst Post Office. Photo identification will be needed in order to retrieve it.

The cause of the Railroad Fire is under investigation. Evacuation shelters are located at the Oakhurst Community Center, and Yosemite Valley Visitors Center.

Small animals can be accepted at the Mariposa SPCA building, while large animals are being taken at the Coarsegold Rodeo Grounds, similar to the Detwiler Fire in July. Tanner Tweed can be contacted there at (559) 994-2794.

Another shelter, courtesy of the Central California Disaster Team, will be available at the Oakhurst Community Center.

Smoke completely blanketed areas in Fish Camp near the fire Thursday, and was particularly strong in parts of Oakhurst and Ahwahnee.

Those with sensitivity to smoky conditions are advised to consult with their physicians, and remain inside with the windows closed. Smoke is typically strongest in the mornings, officials said, and clears from the afternoon into the evening.

The Red Cross shelter at Oakhurst Community Center is on standby, and will be closed by noon Sept. 1. Assistance is available at (559) 343-2549. Another shelter is at the Yosemite Valley Visitors Center.

For a general recap of Thursday’s Railroad Fire meeting, courtesy of the Madera County Sheriff’s Office, click here.