The rustic home where artist John D’Arcy chose to live deep in the hills of Mariposa County was perfect for him. The view of dense hills of green and orange trees and a bright blue sky fueled his creativity.
So when the Detwiler Fire menaced, D’Arcy, 54, found it difficult to leave behind his rental home of three years, fearing he would never see it standing again.
His fears were realized. He returned later to a pile of melted metal roofing and charred rubble, his home and art studio destroyed and his art and supplies lost.
At its peak, the Detwiler Fire threatened about 1,500 structures, prompted evacuations in Mariposa and other foothill communities and drew more than 4,000 firefighters trying to stop its advance. It destroyed 63 homes as it burned through nearly 82,000 acres. Cal Fire estimates that after burning for three weeks, the fire should be fully contained by Saturday.
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Residents like D’Arcy are now beginning to pick through what’s left, size up their losses, mourn for their neighbors’ losses, count their blessings for homes that were spared and thank firefighters who endured smoke, flames and searing heat to save so much.
As D’Arcy examined the rubble on a recent day, he searched to see if any art supplies left behind had survived. He found nothing that could be salvaged.
“A lot of people felt fairly safe about it,” D’Arcy said about the Detwiler Fire, which started Sunday, July 16. “But Sunday night, things just blew up and the next thing you know it’s in your backyard.”
D’Arcy said the view to the west from his front porch was all smoke. His worst fear was that whatever was burning in the distance would reach his home. He threw some clothes and some of his most valuable art supplies and art pieces into his pickup. A journey down the hill on a rough and dusty road followed. “I could tell the smoke was getting closer,” he said. “It just almost seemed like it was about to just come over the hill at me.”
Now, with no home to return to, D’Arcy is staying with a friend in nearby Mariposa. Several people have asked him to carve wooden sculptures and create paintings they could buy. But with a loss of his supplies, and his home, he had to turn down the offers, he said.
Still, D’Arcy said he has gotten phone calls from people in the community who want him to paint “thank you” signs on the windows of Mariposa businesses. It will be a show of gratitude by those in the historic Gold Rush-era town who were saved from the fire to those who saved them. D’Arcy said the community is willing to pitch in to help him buy supplies.
“I’m working on getting things back together. This community has been pretty awesome,” D’Arcy said. “I’m getting the supplies again – the brushes and all of that.”
‘This is the worst that it’s ever really hit’
For families whose homes survived, it’s difficult to look around and see homes that didn’t. Local residents said they wake up sick to their stomachs seeing what the fire has done to their surrounding neighbors.
Timothy Ireland, 47, echoes what many people who live near Mariposa might say. “We’re used to fire around here,” he said this week. “But this is the worst that it’s ever really hit.”
Manzanita trees still line the hillside in the back of a home he shares with a roommate. They were fuel for the fire. Now they sit scorched and dry. All that separates the yellow and white manufactured home from the blackened manzanita trees is a chain-link fence. Dry grass surrounds the home. Ireland said he was at the Pioneer Market in Mariposa a day after the fire started. He saw heavy smoke approaching and with it the sound of propane tanks detonated by flames.
“Boom, boom, a couple minutes later, boom, another propane tank exploding,” Ireland said. He called his roommate, Lisa Beals, to let her know that a fire was in the area.
“I didn’t know there was a fire,” Beals said. Shortly after the call, firefighters showed up and told her she had maybe an hour to pack a bag. “They came back 20 minutes later and told me it was time to go.”
As she recalled the experience, she choked up and wiped tears from her cheeks.
“I had enough time to get my animals (and) get my important papers,” Beals said. “I hardly got any clothes or anything and left.” She had been evacuated for nine days and had returned just this week. She wasn’t able to catch all of her animals before she left – a cat and a kitten died in the fire. One cat, named Leah, burned a paw and one of her three dogs also suffered burns. Another cat also survived.
The damage to the home was contained to the master bedroom. A blackened corner is proof of the effort to spare the home from devastation. But homes on a road behind Beals’ home were incinerated. Torched playgrounds, vehicles and chimneys were left standing. Beals, who works at Mariposa’s Happy Burger Diner, knows she’s lucky to be safe and to have a home to return to. She is not able to cook because her propane tank came close to exploding. It was disabled after fire burned under it.
“We can’t cook right now, unless we use a microwave. We have no shower. We have no hot water. Anything having to do with propane, we do not have,” Beals said. “Now we’re going to have to deal with trying to repair everything and getting it ready to go again.” She said she was going to start making phone calls to different agencies that could help her repair the home and its utilities.
Ireland, Beals’ roommate, was grateful to firefighters who helped stop the flames. He was evacuated twice, and said at one point flaming chunks of oak fell from the sky. But firefighters worked to clear it all up for residents.
“They put on those suits, and then they put on their helmet, and it’s 105 degrees outside and all of a sudden they are just right there, in front of the fire and they are jumping in front of it, trying to stop it,” Ireland said. “Those are true heroes.”
‘I’m lucky to have a home’
Shea Bennett, 41, said she is luckier than most. Her home was untouched by fire, she said. But her best friend who lives up the hill lost her home. Bennett, who owns Sal’s Tacos, said she lost a week’s worth of sales – nearly $8,000 – after she was evacuated for a week. The taco truck needed to be cleaned of fallen ash. Now she’s waiting for business to pick up again.
She and her husband started selling tacos in Mariposa this week using a catering trailer they own. Last Sunday, she was asked by the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office if she could provide burritos to the officers who were keeping roads closed. She was happy to do it. And since she lost all of the food in her home and in her taco truck, a meat company credited several hundred pounds of meat to her so she could feed the officers.
She said she is fortunate her business can still operate and that she is able to continue making a living while her home still stands.
“I re-frame my mind and think of my best friend who used to live right there. Her house burned to the ground,” Bennett said, pointing up the hill. “The houses behind us are gone, these people have no homes. I have a home. I’m lucky to have a home.”
For David Fiester, 53, the fire spared his home but it came too close, he said. He has less rebuilding to do compared to others. To the right of his home and in front, two homes are no longer standing. The fire jumped a driveway and burned a home where a mother and two young children lived, he said. The only structure on Feister’s property damaged by fire was a shed where he kept family pictures and books he uses for his work as a special education teacher for the Mariposa County Office of Education.
A bulldozer appeared to have wrapped a containment line around the back of his home and fire seemed to have come just inches from his home in some parts. A playground outside was not damaged, but grass around it was spotted with burns. Fiester’s heart condition caused him to leave town early due to the smoke, before official evacuation orders were issued. He was in Fresno when he was told his home was saved. His loss, aside from the pictures and books, included food inside his home. And he said there was smoke in the home too. He was working on restoring power.
“I’m lucky, I have what I need,” Fiester said. “There are some families that lost everything.”