‘It’s scary.’ Deadly Camp Fire raises hard questions in eastern Madera County communities

See parts of Butte County ravaged by the Camp Fire

Sacramento Bee photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr. captures video of Paradise and other Butte County towns that have been ravaged by the Camp Fire.
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Sacramento Bee photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr. captures video of Paradise and other Butte County towns that have been ravaged by the Camp Fire.

As Paradise residents begin to pick up the pieces in the wake of the devastating Camp Fire, a poignant question lingers in the southern part of the same Sierra Nevada foothills.

Could eastern Madera County be next?

“It’s scary. We definitely need to be protected in some way,” said Edgar Cachu, an Oakhurst resident since 2001. “I don’t know how they would do that, but we definitely need to be safer up here.”

Cachu, 31, said fires burn in the region nearly every year and fears that one could grow to the size of the Camp Fire - 81 people killed, 153,336 acres torched - are mounting.

It was only about five months ago that the Ferguson Fire ravaged forest and wildland in Mariposa County, gutting 10 structures and killing two firefighters.

Thomas Scott, a wildfire specialist at UC Berkeley, believes those living in forest communities should be concerned.

In Paradise, the evacuation plan proved futile when the fire erupted on the morning of Nov. 8. Narrow, single-lane roads clogged, forcing many to abandon their cars and run from the fast-moving inferno.

A similar evacuation plan is in place for eastern Madera County, said District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler, but it cannot be released until the situation calls for it due to the unpredictability of a wildfire’s origin and trajectory.

“Say the fire’s around Oakhurst and the plan says to go to Yosemite High School, well, the fire might be at Yosemite High School,” Wheeler said. Even with the plan, the southern Sierra Nevada communities face the same challenges that Paradise did - and Paradise had also had a plan in place prior to the Camp Fire.

Routes like Highway 41, Highway 140 and Highway 49 are all mostly one lane roads, raising tough questions should mass evacuations ever be necessary for Oakhurst, Coarsegold or North Fork.

“Think of the flatlands. The obvious example would be Fresno or Madera, there’s lots of ways to go in lots of different directions. You can move around fairly easily and people aren’t necessarily trapped.” Scott said. “I’m just thinking that the roads that go into Oakhurst are not really large roads, right? It’s not like there’s any four-lane roads going into Oakhurst.”

Scott said this is a common theme among the communities along the Sierra Nevada mountains - narrow roads and large populations.

Jaime Williams, spokesperson for Cal Fire, said she recommends people always have an escape plan ready and should be willing to use it as soon as they are notified of an approaching wildfire.

“We encourage homeowners to establish some sort of pre-plan prior to summer hitting,” Williams said. “That entails developing some type of escape route from their community, so identifying at least two ways out of the community.”

Scott echoed the suggestion.

Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District Chief Kurt Henke told the Sacramento Bee that wildfires in places such as the Sierra Nevada foothills and the Central Valley are not a matter of “if a fire is going to happen, it’s when it’s going to happen.”

With that in mind, Scott said residents of those areas need to be knowledgeable about all aspects of possible wildfires.

“Everybody in Oakhurst ought to know which direction is a fire likely to come from? Do you have your evacuation route already planned? At what point do you leave?” he said.

The Berkeley professor said waiting for an evacuation notice may be waiting until its too late. That was evident in the Camp Fire, where many felt like the warnings were not sent out soon enough.

Making sure that your home is in line with Cal Fire fire prevention regulations is equally important. Houses in Paradise played a large role in fueling the growth of the blaze.

“The house is the most burnable part of the landscape. It’s got the greatest amount of fuel. It’s got the greatest amount of things that can often produce a long-term fire,” Scott said.

With a combined population of about 12,000 people, eastern Madera County is less than half the size of Paradise, which has a population of about 27,000.

The area also has some geographical aspects working in its favor, starting with its wind patterns.

In Paradise, what allowed the fire to grow so rapidly were the downsloping rapid winds that reached upwards of 45 mph. The same type of winds also rapidly expanded the size of the Woolsey and Hill Fires in Southern California.

Winds like that are rare in the southern Sierra Nevada areas, said National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Hartey.

“We rarely get anything real strong and it has been several years since we’ve had a real strong one,” Hartey said.

Scott said he hopes an incident like this inspires preparation in all the communities prone to wildfires in California.

“If you have a moment where you can just grab a bag and throw it in your car. If you know what would you do with your dog? What would you do with your pets? What would you do with your horses?” Scott said. “It’s not, ‘How did this happen,’ it’s ‘When will it happen?’”