If one thing defined the first community meeting on the furious Detwiler Fire, attended by nearly 500 people Wednesday night, it was Frank Avery wiping a hand across his forehead in relief.
After asking whether any portion of the main town area of Mariposa had been hit by growing flames that have claimed at least 29 structures, eight of them homes, Deputy Incident Commander Dave Russell responded those areas were safe.
“Me and my wife feel better,” Avery said, after a deep sigh. “That’s all that really matters.”
For Avery and many others, who watched as Russell, Mariposa County Sheriff Doug Binnewies, and members of other cooperating response agencies gave full updates on fighting the blaze, the meeting inside Mountain Christian Center in Oakhurst helped provide at least a breath of fresh air after days defined by smoky skies and growing fear.
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“Everybody’s heart is in the game,” said Battalion Chief Jeremy Rahn, noting that nearly 3,200 firefighting personnel, from California to Oregon and Nevada, have joined in taking down the inferno. “We are totally invested in this.”
Defeating a fire that has grown to an estimated 48,000 acres in only four days - the blaze began the afternoon of Sunday, July 16 - has proven immensely challenging, officials said. Tall, dry grass, coupled with shifting, unpredictable winds, has left firefighters facing continuously changing conditions.
Despite that, Sheriff Binnewies said work has begun on repopulating efforts after some 5,000 people have been evacuated. But, he said, it will take time to ensure areas are safe before people can return home.
“In my almost 30-year career, I believe that’s the first time we’ve seen that here,” Binnewies said in reference to the evacuation of downtown Mariposa on Tuesday. “I know it’s difficult to be displaced, but I ask for your patience. If we pull that trigger (on repopulation), we need to know it’s safe for you and our personnel.”
For a complete list of evacuated areas and road closures, visit www.fire.ca.gov/current_incidents/incidentdetails/Index/1672.
Jeff Marshall, a fire behavior analyst with the Cal Fire Incident Management Team, said that thanks to higher humidity, the flames were less active Wednesday, even as they pushed south past Mariposa and north towards Coulterville, forcing additional evacuations.
Despite that, Marshall said, firefighters are still dealing with flames that leap as long as 25 feet in dry, brush conditions.
“We are getting some of the conditions we’re looking for,” Marshall said, “but we still see some challenges.”
For Pacific Gas and Electric Company, many of those challenges lie in hundreds of downed power poles.
Denny Boyles, a spokesperson for the company, said that at the worst point, some 11,000 people, from Hunter’s Valley to downtown Mariposa, went without electricity, and some 5,640 are still affected.
“Our goal is to approach this in a deliberate manner so when you go home, you’ll have power,” Boyles said.
Boyles said more than 200 power poles have been toppled during the course of the fire. Electricity was restored to downtown Mariposa into the Jerseydale area, with Ponderosa Basin as the next target.
At least 14 active wildfires are burning across California. Officials noted some firefighters have traveled as far south as the Mexican border and north as Oregon to come help battle the blaze.
“We do this because we live in communities like yours,” noted Rahn, adding some firefighters have worked 10, or 20 days on fires across the state with no breaks. “We do it because we are your firefighters.”
Officials then opened the floor to a host of questions.
One resident asked if there was disaster assistance to help ensure those displaced from work could be compensated.
Binnewies assured him efforts are underway with the Mariposa County Office of Emergency Services to help provide relief for those displaced by the fire.
Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday declared a state of emergency on the Detwiler Fire, which could open up additional funding to help provide compensation, Binnewies added.
After the meeting, Barbara Milazzo, who had to run from the flames as they approached a home she was housesitting in the Hornitos area, said she felt at least a bit comforted.
“Although I trust the people in command to do their job, it’s good to know my friends are safe,” Milazzo said. “I know the cavalry has arrived.”