A fast-moving brush fire in Oakhurst Monday sparked a massive evacuation of residents and tourists from the foothill community as fire crews from throughout the region tried to keep the flames from spreading.
Named the Junction fire, the blaze quickly blackened about 1,200 acres in the north end of town and beyond. The fire briefly threatened a pair of massive propane tanks at Suburban Propane along Highway 41 when the company's building was ignited by a spot fire. Fire crews ordered most people to move back a quarter-mile from the business, and firefighters were ready to abandon the fight if flames got too close to the tanks themselves.
"The tanks are going to do what they are going to do and it's going to be bad," one fire official was heard saying on a radio.
In the end, the tanks were spared. Other structures were not so lucky.
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As of 9 p.m., eight structures were destroyed, and at least 500 more were threatened. Gov. Jerry Brown's office announced late Monday that a federal emergency grant will help defray 75% of the firefighting costs.
Two firefighters were injured, and one was taken to a hospital for evaluation, fire officials said.
The fire prompted officials to close Highway 41 and evacuate hotels and other businesses along the route. More than 13,000 homes and businesses were given evacuation orders, according to the Madera County Sheriff's Office.
Wildfires have been a worry for Oakhurst residents since 1961, when the Harlow fire, stoked by winds, roared across more than 42,000 acres around the town in a little over two days. It has long been regarded as one of the fastest-moving fires on record.
Only a wind change spared the town, which had far fewer residents and homes than it has today.
Rhonda Salisbury, Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau marketing director, said Oakhurst hasn't seen a fire that significant in more than 50 years.
"We're all ready to get out our hoses," she said. "We love this town and community and these firefighters have had such a hard time in the last couple years. We want to do what we can to help, but there's not a lot of water and it's hot and dry."
With a big plume of smoke towering over the town on Monday, businesses were shutting down early. Salisbury added that it was difficult to know whether they were closing because of the evacuation, or just to get out of the way of firefighters. "They basically need us all off the road."
The blaze was reported as a plume of smoke about 1:50 p.m. Don Stein, the division chief for Madera County Cal Fire, said the fire started in the area of a known homeless encampment near Road 425-A and Quail Drive on the northeast edge of Oakhurst. Still, fire officials were uncertain what sparked the fire.
"We haven't made a determination on the cause," he said.
The fire started in the northern end of Oakhurst and was initially moving away from the community. But when the winds shifted to the southeast, he said, the fire moved toward town.
About 5:30 p.m., the winds shifted again, pushing the fire back toward the northeast. That's about when Pacific Gas & Electric Co. cut power to nearly 4,000 customers in and around Oakhurst, spokesman J.D. Guidi said. By Monday night, power remained out for about 2,000 customers.
By nightfall, the fire had jumped Highway 41 and was spreading near the Lewis Creek drainage area below Bass Lake where the terrain is steep, the brush is overgrown and there is a lot of fallen timber.
Firefighters from Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service and Madera County as well as other local fire departments, including the Fresno and Hanford fire departments, converged on Oakhurst. Helicopters and air tankers also were called in to help.
As fire crews jammed roads getting into Oakhurst, residents and tourists -- and picture-takers -- jammed the roads out of town, creating a frenzy as worried residents asked Madera County sheriff's deputies questions about the fire and the evacuation. Road closures also complicated the evacuation.
As of Monday night, road closures remained in effect for Highway 41 at Road 426, Road 222 at Road 274, and Highway 41 at Road 222. In addition, anyone planning to enter or leave Yosemite National Park was advised to take a different route than Highway 41.
As fire alarms sounded Monday afternoon in nearby buildings, Oakhurst residents and National Park tourists gathered outside a local Rite Aid eating ice cream.
Cody Goodwin, Greg Steffen and Jesse Gallet waited for a call from Tenaya Lodge where they work to see if they were going in to work Monday.
"It's a snow day for us until the roads are open," Goodwin, 31, said. "As long as we're waiting, we're getting paid."
Dave and Kathy Schollman were on their way back from Sequoia National Park. The Minnesota residents landed in Seattle last week and were touring the national parks along the West Coast.
They stayed in the Best Western Oakhurst Sunday night, and because of Highway 41 closures they weren't able to retrieve their luggage.
"Every time I come to California something happens,' Dave Schollman said. "Last time we were here was for the 1989 earthquake. I guess my bucket list is complete."
Clinging to hope
For many others, however, the fire and evacuation order left them close to tears and searching for information.
"It's tense, but calm," said Jessica Piffero, an American Red Cross information officer staffing an evacuation center at the Oakhurst Community Center. "People are worried about their homes and properties and possessions. We're working together with other government agencies so that everything goes as smoothly as possible."
The Oakhurst evacuation center wasn't open long -- the center was ordered closed about 6 p.m. because of the fire's proximity.
Evacuees were then directed to go to Coarsegold where the Red Cross set up shelter at the Coarsegold Community Center on Highway 41. The evacuees and Red Cross officials had to use Road 425 since Highway 41 was closed.
In Coarsegold, a man sitting on a bench smoked a cigarette with a scanner in hand, waiting to hear if his house had burned down. Families gathered around cell phones to get updates on the fire. Tears were shed as new updates were shared.
About 150 Oakhurst residents had gathered at the Coarsegold community center as of Monday evening, according to the Red Cross. The Red Cross plans to open a second shelter at the Yosemite Lakes Park Community Church on Patrick Avenue in Yosemite Lakes Park. Animals are permitted at the Coarsegold shelter, but not at the Yosemite Lakes Park shelter, the Madera County Sheriff's Office said.
In Coarsegold, Red Cross workers were helping get people set up with cots and blankets. Gatorade, water and snacks were brought by Scott Browar and his son, Austin. They are both residents of Coarsegold.
"These people are our neighbors," Scott Browar said. "We are just trying to help any way we can."
In the gravel parking lot, a group of mobile home residents sat in folding chairs, nervously waiting to hear if they were homeless. Corkie Swalm has lived in her Oakhurst mobile home for 10 years.
"My son called me and said, 'Mom, grab your cat and start driving! That fire is headed straight for you'," Swalm said.
As tears filled her eyes and fire trucks whizzed past, Swalm realized she didn't grab anything of value.
"You just go completely blank when something like this happens," Swalm said. "I didn't grab a single thing."
School closures Tuesday
As a result of the fire, Yosemite Unified School District officials announced school closures for Tuesday:
• Wasuma Elementary School and Ahwahnee Middle School, both in Ahwahnee
• Oakhurst Elementary and Oakhurst Intermediate School and Yosemite High School, all in Oakhurst
Staying open are Rivergold and Coarsegold elementary schools in Coarsegold.
For more infomation, go to #FIREDAYSCHOOLSCHEDULES on Twitter.