The Willow fire, which has scorched more than 5,700 acres in North Fork over the last two weeks, is nearly finished, but a criminal investigation into who burglarized several homes evacuated during the fire is picking up steam.
The fire is now 95% contained, Sierra National Forest officials said Friday. Evacuations ended Tuesday morning, and officials estimate that the fire will reach 100% containment by 6 p.m. on Aug. 15.
Several residents returning to the Cascadel Woods community Sunday evening learned someone had robbed their homes during the evacuation. Madera County Sheriff Jay Varney said Monday the robbery most likely was committed by neighbors who disobeyed the evacuation orders and stayed behind.
On Friday, the sheriff’s office arrested the first of what detectives believe will be several robbery suspects. Lt. Bill Ward said Alexander Matthew James, 19, was arrested after he tried to sell a Sony PlayStation 3 video game console and a buck knife stolen from a home on Vista Drive in Cascadel Woods.
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James is from North Fork, but he is not a Cascadel Woods resident, Ward said.
The home robbery investigation is ongoing.
The fire has been burning since July 25 and has cost $18.3 million to fight. With the fire winding down, there are 626 personnel fighting the blaze — well below the more than 2,000 who were assigned at its peak.
Sierra National Forest spokeswoman Iveth Hernandez said as of 6 a.m. Friday morning, the Willow fire transitioned to a Sierra National Forest Type 3 management organization.
“The Sierra National Forest is taking care of the remainder of the fire now,” Hernandez said.
Madera County District Attorney David Linn said a decision has not been made in regards to the teenage boy who allegedly started the Willow fire July 25. The boy was burning small pine branches and they fell to the ground, setting off the fire.
Linn’s office is still waiting for one piece of evidence from the Forest Service and charges may be filed early next week.
Nicole Santos: 559-441-6247, @Iam_NicoleS