Three Sierra wildfires in 24 hours could signal troubled summer

The Fresno BeeJune 17, 2013 

Deborah Grant heard sirens race past her Yosemite Lakes Park home toward her second property.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, Big River's on fire.' "

Grant ran to find her home unharmed, but her neighbors weren't so lucky. The house on the 30000 block of Big River Way in the Madera County foothills was badly burned and its fences melted from the heat.

"I hope people realize it can happen at any time," Grant said.

And it has. After a month of small blazes in the Yosemite Lakes Park area, the central Sierra wildfire season erupted Sunday night and into Monday.

Firefighters were scrambling to control a big blaze in Mariposa County and a smaller one southeast of Auberry in eastern Fresno County, plus tamping out a grasslands fire that broke out south of Yosemite Lakes Park.

The Carstens fire in Mariposa County was the largest concern. First spotted Sunday afternoon, it had burned 1,600 acres and threatened at least 800 homes by Tuesday morning. No structures had been burned, but some residents in the area were forced to evacuate. The fire was 15% contained.

The Sierra fire near Sierra High School in eastern Fresno County was threatening 20 homes Monday evening, Cal Fire said. The fire near Black Mountain Road and Lodge Road, reported shortly after 4 p.m. Monday, had burned 46 acres and was 50% contained.

And the Rolling fire on grasslands near highways 41 and 145 in Madera County was 90% contained Monday evening. Cal Fire said it burned 482 acres after igniting just after 6 p.m. Sunday near 22-Mile House.

Three wildfires in roughly 24 hours — and the season hasn't hit its full stride.

"It's frightening that we have a whole summer to go through," said Barbara Novak, a Yosemite Lakes Park resident.

The folks in Yosemite Lakes Park know what it means to be on pins and needles. Cal Fire information officer Karen Guillemin said there have been more than 20 fires within the last six weeks in the unincorporated community just west of Highway 41 and Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino.

Some of the blazes in Yosemite Lakes Park were caused by trees hitting power lines, but every fire is being investigated because of the abnormality of the streak.

"They're not all suspicious, but the number of fires is very suspicious," Guillemin said Monday.

Grant, the homeowner who rushed to the scene of one of the fires, was blunt about her suspicions Monday: "I think we have a little arsonist in our midst. People are worried that they are gonna go off somewhere, come back and their house is gone."

Firefighters — including the area's volunteer department — have been able to protect all but the one house during the string of Yosemite Lakes Park fires.

A town hall meeting sponsored by Cal Fire last week drew hundreds of locals, reflecting how people are concerned about wildland fires this year, resident Roger Hoff said.

They crowded the Yosemite Lakes Park Clubhouse and asked officials about how to protect their homes. Nearly a thousand more watched online, said Michael Neveu, the general manager of the Yosemite Lakes Owners' Association.

While the community is concerned about how fire season is starting out, Neveu said residents are staying calm. "They're tough people that live up here and they know that we have the best resources available."

Still, said Marie Touitou, "we're getting uptight." Sunday's fire came close to her Yosemite Lakes Park home while she was out of town. The flames were out when she returned and her home was fine.

Touitou has lived in Yosemite Lakes Park for 11 years and has never seen a fire season like this.

"It's really unnerving," Touitou said. "This isn't nature doing this, this is caused by humans."

That's a safe bet, Guillemin said: 94% of all fires in California are caused by humans.

Carstens, Sierra fires

More than 800 firefighters were battling the Carstens fire, which began at 2 p.m. Sunday near Carstens Road east of Midpines.

Firefighters from San Luis Obispo, Tulare, Santa Clara, San Bernardino and Monterey counties are helping on the blaze.

In Fresno County, Cal Fire Capt. Ryan Michaels said the homes threatened in the Sierra fire near Auberry were on Wintermute Lane just west of Sierra High. Air tankers and helicopters carrying water were used to contain the progress of the fire. There were no evacuations or road closures.

How to help

Cal Fire officials recommend these steps if you see something or someone acting suspiciously in a wildland area during fire season:

--Give as many specifics as possible to authorities.

--If someone is on foot, describe what they're wearing, their location and when you saw them.

--If there is a suspicious vehicle, give the make and model of the car, its color and license-plate number, time, location and direction of travel.

--Do not chase down suspicious vehicles — leave that to law enforcement officers.

Staff writer Diana Aguilera contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6371, qwestern@fresnobee.com or @Quinn_Western on Twitter.

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