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Alone in the mountains, ‘I was scared to death’ when Ferguson Fire came near

Juanita Smith, 77, searches inside her Ford F-150 where she keeps her belongings after she evacuated her home near Mariposa, CA due to the Ferguson Fire. Smith is staying in the Red Cross shelter at Mariposa Elementary School.
Juanita Smith, 77, searches inside her Ford F-150 where she keeps her belongings after she evacuated her home near Mariposa, CA due to the Ferguson Fire. Smith is staying in the Red Cross shelter at Mariposa Elementary School. cdelgado@fresnobee.com

Juanita Smith sat in her remodeled Honda two weeks ago and screamed and cried as the Ferguson Fire began burning areas around her mountain community. After several advisories and notices to evacuate the area from the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office, Smith finally left her home in Lushmeadows this week.

She didn’t see flames, but the pink-orange skies and smoky air that had built up since the fire started near El Portal on July 13 was enough for Smith to leave. Even though she’s alone.

Smith’s partner of 27 years died in December. Though his diagnosis was never confirmed to her, she said “Don” had complications with his pancreas and liver. “Test after test after test didn’t confirm anything,” Smith said.

The Ferguson wildfire has forced thousands to evacuate Yosemite, but this isn't the first time a wildfire has ravaged Yosemite.

Finally, Don was taken in by his family last summer to be cared for. Though the two were not married and Don had his own home, Smith was left to live alone as well as plan her evacuation alone. Her three children live far away, she said.

When the Ferguson Fire prompted warnings of evacuations, Smith didn’t know what she would do. The fears of the fire’s unknown powers as it roared near Yosemite National Park were felt across homes in the eastern portion of the county where she lives. She said a lot of single women like her live in Lushmeadows.

“We didn’t know — we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Smith said. “Are we going to be OK?”

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Smith once had Don, who she said was a former airplane mechanic in the Korean War, to depend on when a fire came by. She said the two had a plan ready and each would drive a vehice with personal belongings and get to a safe place together. About three years ago the two left Smith’s home and took refuge in a friend’s house where they watched flames devour the wilderness around them. Unlike this time around, Smith felt safe.

“It’s very, very, very, very stressful,” Smith, 77, said Friday as she sat outside the Red Cross evacuation center at Mariposa Elementary School while bits of ash rained down through the hazy air.

“I’ve been through evacuations before, but because I was alone this time, I didn’t have anybody to share it with. I was scared to death.”

Parts of Yosemite National Park close as firefighters try to contain the Ferguson wildfire.

But she said she has found it relaxing at the evacuation center. A county vehicle took evacuees to a place where they could shower and freshen up in the morning. Smith arrived back to the evacuation center wishing that her shower had lasted longer, as she told a group of friends. They had come to check on her and ask why she hadn’t been at a community meeting the night before for an update on the fire’s progress.

When she tried leaving her home for the first time, Smith said her Honda wouldn’t start. A neighbor helped her get the car to start but then it died again the same day, she said. A few days later, on Wednesday, she decided to load up her items onto her Ford F-150. It was mostly important documents, but Smith said she needed to fit in artwork made by a local woman. “I think that was the first thing I put in the car,” she said.

Smith said she felt a relief from stress as soon as she arrived to the evacuation center, where about 30 people have been spending their nights and days since it went up Wednesday. The Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office estimates 4,500 people have left at least 3,000 homes in the area threatened by the Ferguson Fire. The fire, which has grown to nearly 46,000 acres, threatened 5,245 structures as of Wednesday, according to U.S. Forest Service officials. One structure has been destroyed.

The Ferguson Fire has consumed 36,587 acres and is currently at 25 percent containment.

Forest officials believe the fire will grow in size due to the terrain. Firefighters have managed to bring it to 29 percent containment as of Friday. Seven firefighters have been injured in the wildfire and one has died. Braden Varney, 36, a heavy equipment operator with Cal Fire, died when his bulldozer rolled over in steep terrain. Smith said Varney had agreed to dig a trench at her home just three weeks before the deadly accident.

Varney was one of Smith’s neighbors.

“That was a shock to the world at large, but especially to our little community,” Smith said.

Firefighters, Mariposa residents, and friends of Braden Varney, the firefighter killed Saturday while battling the Ferguson Fire, lined Highway 49 for a procession to the Stanislaus County Coroner's Office after his body was recovered.

The Mariposa Elementary School evacuation center also hosted an animal refuge during the wildfire evacuations. The Central California Animal Disaster Team was looking after cats and dogs in a bungalow on the school campus. CEO Naomi Flam said the nonprofit works with the county sheriff’s office and the Red Cross to provide shelter for animals of people who’ve been evacuated.

Flam said pets at the school’s shelter belonged to people staying at the shelter but also to people who were staying elsewhere in the community. She said some evacuees who have to work also leave their pets temporarily. Along with the Mariposa SPCA and the county’s animal control unit, Flam said the animal disaster volunteer team is looking after 600 big and small animals displaced by the Ferguson Fire.

“People love their animals, and (some) people have more than one animal,” Flam said. “We have more animals here than people in the shelter and that’s usually the case.”

Brian “Bear” Wilson, 52, who was staying with his wife and mother-in-law at the evacuation center, came by Friday morning to check up on the family cats — Chloe, Balder and Franklin. Wilson said the family left their home in Ponderosa Basin on Wednesday.

Red Cross supervisor Kelly Peck said people are generally anxious after the Ferguson Fire displaced so many communities. She said she has seen many of the same people at the shelter this summer as she did last year when the Detwiler Fire came dangerously close to Mariposa.

Peck said a Canadian couple spent one night at a Red Cross evacuation center when one was opened at the New Life Church in Oakhurst. She said most of the evacuees at the center are area residents. Some evacuees, meanwhile, have stayed with friends or family.

Richard Bernard, 65, left his five-acre home of 23 years near Triangle Road and East Westfall Road this week when the evacuation notice was sent out for the area, he said Friday. Bernard, his wife, son, daughter and granddaughter are staying with a friend in Mariposa.

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Richard Bernard, 65, visited the Mariposa Elementary School evacuation center, set up by the Red Cross, on Friday July 27, 2018. Bernard planned to stay there with his family after leaving his home due to the Ferguson Fire. CRESENCIO RODRIGUEZ-DELGADO cdelgado@fresnobee.com

But he expects to check into the evacuation center at the Mariposa school in the coming days. He visited there Friday to ask if the volunteers needed any help. He knows some of the evacuees at the center personally. He said the community around Mariposa is one that always helps one another, especially during tragedies. His granddaugther left home with a bag full of dolls she hopes to give children in the evacuation center who might feel scared, he said.

As firefighters look for ways to put an end to the Ferguson Fire and repopulate the communities around Yosemite National Park, Bernard is among the displaced Mariposa County residents left pondering whether they should settle down elsewhere, somewhere where he won’t have to live life “day by day with a suitcase,” he said.

“This is my community and my wife’s community and we all grew up here. But this is the one reason that has got me looking and saying, ‘Maybe. Maybe it’s time,” Bernard said. “It’s hard living like that.”

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