On Saturday afternoon, three deer dashed past a group from Southern California as they happily played baseball outside a remote vacation cabin near North Fork.
A few minutes later, Fernando Jerez, 29, realized what the deer were running from when he spotted a plume of smoke Saturday afternoon — the start of the Willow fire that has since grown to more than 1,500 acres and was just 5% contained on Monday morning.
A few minutes after the dashing deer, a deputy sheriff came whizzing up and told the group to evacuate. The fire burning southeast of Bass Lake was coming up the drainage, right toward Central Camp.
The small private community, nestled within Sierra National Forest, remains evacuated. Residents of nearby Cascadel Woods were put on notice Sunday that they may also have to evacuate. The Willow fire is threatening around 450 structures, most in these two communities, said Iveth Hernandez, a Sierra National Forest spokeswoman.
The vacationing families from Southern California — many planning to go on their first trip to Yosemite the following day — had been at their Central Camp cabin for just three hours when their evacuation was ordered.
One of the men in the party, Javier Palacios of Los Angeles, had left his wife and three young children to pick up another family, whose car broke down, shortly before the fire started. When the 31-year-old returned, the road to Central Camp was closed and he couldn’t reach them by cellphone.
“I don’t know how things work around here. ... I wasn’t sure if someone had notified my family,” Palacios said. “I didn’t know if they were surrounded by the fire. It was a pretty helpless feeling.”
As he waited nervously by his cellphone, up the hill at the cabin, Jerez’s 6-year-old son couldn’t stop asking, “Is the fire close? Is the fire close?”
His father told him, “Look, close your eyes and go to bed and we’ll be out of here soon.”
The little boy managed to do just that as Jerez worried about how the families would make their escape. The road below was closed and they were told to take the “back way” out.
Jerez didn’t know what that meant, but fortunately, a group of women from North Fork, also vacationing at Central Camp, knew the way. They caravanned together out a less-known route of winding dirt roads.
Five hours later, Palacios got to see his family again outside a store in North Fork.
“He was hugging his little boy so tight and he was crying,” said Judi Norby, 66, of North Fork, who helped lead the caravan out of Central Camp. “So that was a happy ending for them.”
Palacios said of that moment: “It was one of the best feelings ever.”
The next time around, I’ll make sure to be with my family at all times.
The families are now staying in a Fresno motel, waiting for word about when they can return to get nearly all of their belongings from Central Camp.
The North Fork ladies also are waiting to return to Central Camp. They left a few things, including a Mickey Mouse waffle iron.
“We were so looking forward to having breakfast with our Mickey Mouse waffle iron,” Norby said with a laugh.
Sue Novell was also part of the party. The 61-year-old lifelong North Fork resident has only had to evacuate because of a wildfire twice in her life — both times, this summer.
The last time was the Corrine fire, which burned 920 acres in the North Fork area in June.
“It’s like a tinderbox waiting for that match,” Novell said. “It doesn’t take much to get it going. It’s scary.”
Because of the drought and dryness, there’s just so much more fuel.
The Willow fire started around 2:30 p.m. Saturday near Road 274 between Central Camp Road and Willow Canyon Drive and was burning northeast through an area with a “heavy concentration of fallen dead trees from past fires, drought and beetle kill.”
Hernandez said the blaze entered an area where more than 4,000 acres burned in 2001. Several North Fork residents said the dead timber should have been logged years ago.
“The dead pine trees, it’s just like turpentine catching on fire or gasoline,” said Madera County Supervisor Tom Wheeler, who has lived in North Fork since 1959.
The Willow fire remains under investigation. On Sunday afternoon, no homes had been damaged by the fire and no one was injured.
Fire officials didn’t have an estimate for how many people were evacuated from Central Camp, but Hernandez said the community has no more than 150 structures. Firefighters were working to build a fire break to keep the blaze from reaching Central Camp.
There were 785 personnel at the fire by the end of the day Sunday. Fire suppression equipment includes at least three air tankers (one a massive aircraft that resembles a passenger plane) and five helicopters.
I freaked out. All I could see was this big mushroom cloud.
And, for some lucky North Fork residents like Barbara and John Grow, there also is a 2,000-gallon water tanker truck at their disposal, driven by a good Samaritan neighbor who doesn’t want to be named.
When that man learned from his wife that her friend, Barbara Grow, was in despair, wearily watching another smoke plume, he drove over to her place, ready to save the day.
It meant a lot to Grow, who started to cry as she talked about his heroic good deed.
“That he would risk his own safety — and he had no idea what the roads were like, he didn’t know what was a fire and what wasn’t,” she said. “He just knew that his wife’s friend was crying and there was a fire.”
Fortunately, the wind was pushing the blaze into the forest, away from the Grows’ home.
While the Grows have lived in North Fork for 32 years, wildfire is still scary.
But they won’t leave. They stay for family and friends, a close-knit community that has guys like the water tanker driver.
“It’s the people, that’s why we are here,” Grow said, “and that’s why we’ll stay.”
Road 274 is closed between Central Camp Road and Willow Canyon Drive. Gaggs and Whiskers campgrounds were also closed.
Red Cross Central California set up an evacuation center at the Oakhurst Community Center. The Central California Animal Disaster Team also set up at the center to help evacuees shelter their pets. Large animals are being directed to the Coarsegold Rodeo Grounds.