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‘You don’t want to see old men cry, so we tried not to.’ Ferguson Fire destroys families’ cabins

Steve Hakanson, left, and Jonas Richardson, right, swimming in the Merced River as children. The river was located right next to the cabins they spent so much time in as children.
Steve Hakanson, left, and Jonas Richardson, right, swimming in the Merced River as children. The river was located right next to the cabins they spent so much time in as children.

A family trip to Steve Hakanson’s and Jonas Richardson’s vacation cabins was usually packed with laughter, swims in the Merced River and maybe a story or two. The last trip, though, was unlike any of the others.

“It’s super sentimental to us,” Richardson said of the cabins.

The pair had made a tradition out of visiting those two cabins, which were located above Highway 140 along the Merced River, since Richardson’s father bought the property in the 1950s.

Their last visit was the most sentimental of all. The cousins’ cabins were two of the 10 structures, seven of which were single-family residences, that have been destroyed by the Ferguson Fire since it began on July 13 in Mariposa County. The fire is now at 94,992 acres and 43 percent contained.

Hakanson, 67, said the true weight of the loss did not sink in until he saw the destruction himself.

“We were two old men, you know, just shedding some tears. But you don’t want to see old men cry, so we tried not to. We grew up there as kids, so it’s like home,” Hakanson said of seeing his cabin destroyed.

He could not help but be a little bothered when he saw a Cal Fire report that deemed the destroyed structures were believed to be “non-residential.” This was a home away from home and had been for over half a century.

The Richardson family had actually owned the buildings since the 1930s. The land was originally bought to house a limestone quarry and a hotel, but for Hakanson and Richardson, it was all about their cabins.

Richardson, 66, said there could be books written about their times in those cabins. Those books would be filled with tales of their encounters with mountain lions, ghosts, aliens and even Bigfoot. Richardson now laughs at the absurdity of those stories, but he shares them with an unmistakable joy.

“They’re great stories and we all love them dearly, but there’s enough truth within all that craziness that it’s just fun. They sure are fun, those stories that we have,” Richardson said.

The stays at the cabins proved to be so much fun for the men, every obstacle that may have prevented them from coming back was met with innovative ways to continue the tradition.

About 10 years ago, the swinging bridge to walk there was damaged by water to the point where it was impossible to use. Since then, the family has hiked down — many times in triple-digit temperatures — to the Merced River. They would then either swim or raft across.

Once at the cabins, the family would have to remain aware of the rattlesnakes and poison oak in the area. As Richardson described it, the cabin as it aged was “a face only a mother could love,” or in Hakanson’s words “heaven.” They worked hard to keep the cabins clean for their frequent visits. Hakanson even went as far as to repaint his cabin two years ago.

If anyone believes the cabins’ destruction will keep the two men from visiting, Richardson said they’re greatly mistaken. “Now, it’s just kind of a new era and we’ll still go up there and enjoy it, still do the same things we always did,” he said.

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Steve Hakanson and his wife, Linda Hakanson, with three of their four daughters inside Hakanson’s cabin. Courtesy of Rachel Owens

Cheyenne Warner, spokesperson for the unified command battling the Ferguson Fire, said in situations where the fire is threatening structures, firefighters follow a checklist to determine what, if anything, can be done to save those structures.

In the case of Richardson’s and Hakanson’s cabins, the fire jumping the Merced River doomed them.

The Ferguson Fire is still threatening 995 structures.

Fire officials predict containment on the blaze will grow by Monday, although spot fires continue to be a problem. The progress on the blaze has lifted a number of evacuation orders, including Yosemite National Park, which allowed its residents to return to their homes Wednesday morning.

The communities of Wawona, El Portal and Mariposa Pines are a few of the communities that have begun allowing residents to return home. Yosemite Valley and Wawona, while open to residents again, remain closed to visitors indefinitely.

Scott Gediman, spokesperson for Yosemite National Park, said this closure comes during one of the park’s peak attendance periods. He could not provide a dollar figure for how much the park has lost during its closure.

“This is literally the busiest time of the year,” Gediman said.

The fire continues to be at risk of spreading into Yosemite Valley, and fire officials are focusing on stopping the fire at Cascade Falls to prevent it from spreading into the north and south rim of the valley.

Fire activity remains minimal around the Foresta and Yosemite West areas, where structural protection is being prioritized.

Mariposa County Sheriff Doug Binnewies said he was happy to report none of the structures that burned down were inhabited. But losing a home is never easy, and Hakanson has struggled to see the “success” in what happened to his cabin.

Hakanson said that if anything has really helped him contextualize the experience of losing a home, it’s knowing that two firefighters have died fighting the blaze, and his thoughts are with their families.

“You know, you have to put everything into perspective. Braden Varney lost his life and he leaves behind a wife and two children. My losses don’t compare to anything that they have lost,” Hakanson said.

Varney died July 14 when his bulldozer overturned. The other firefighter was Brian Hughes, who was struck and killed by a falling tree.

A total of eight people have died as a result of one of California’s most destructive fire seasons. There are at least 17 active wildfires in California as of Wednesday afternoon, and over 600,000 acres in California have been burned by wildfires this year.

A total of 2,039 personnel are still fighting the Ferguson Fire. At the peak of the blaze, the number of personnel was nearly 4,000.

Officials reported they expect the Ferguson Fire to be fully contained by Aug. 15.

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