Residents of the Cascadel Woods community east of North Fork were bracing late Wednesday for orders to flee as crews fighting the Willow fire worried that the blaze could spread to their community.
U.S. Forest Service spokesman Cody Norris said the Cascadel Woods community southeast of the fire was vulnerable because of an active front near Central Creek.
The Cascadel Woods area is under a pre-evacuation advisory and the fire management team’s statement says, “fire managers and the Madera County Sheriff’s Department are expecting the status to change to a mandatory evacuation order within the next 12 to 24 hours.”
Madera County law enforcement issued the pre-evacuation notice Monday to Cascadel Woods residents, alerting them to gather their belongings and be prepared to leave. So far, the Central Camp area and Douglas Station Road from Trails End have been evacuated due to the fire.
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Fire crews were working — sometimes right at the edge of the fire — to prevent it from moving farther south toward Cascadel Woods or South Fork, officials said Wednesday evening. Farther south, crews were opening a contingency line from the 2001 North Fork fire to protect those communities.
Firefighters put the size of the blaze at 2,077 acres and 30% containment. At midday, a spokesman for the South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team cautioned that the fire had remained active overnight because of hot and dry weather, and they worried that continued hot temperatures and possible thunderstorms could complicate firefighting efforts.
Due to the blaze, several road closures are still in place including: Willow Canyon Road, Central Camp Road, Autumn Ridge Road (Road 223) and Douglas Ranger Station Road at Trails End. Beasore Road remains open to normal traffic.
The Willow fire is one of nine large wildfires now burning in California. East of Napa Valley, where one of the toughest blazes is burning, fire crews held their ground Wednesday, keeping the Wragg fire from jumping any more containment lines, fire officials said.
The fire, which has burned for a week, has charred more than 11 square miles in Solano County. At least 136 structures remain threatened, and more than 200 people are still under orders to evacuate their homes.
Meanwhile, evacuation orders have been lifted for residents of 50 homes in the Sierra Nevada foothills northeast of Sacramento after a fire started there Saturday, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Fire and Forestry Protection. The fire burned through more than 31/2 square miles and is about half contained.
About 6,500 firefighters from across the state are battling the blazes in intense heat, some in temperatures as high as 112 degrees.
As fire personnel continue to battle the Willow fire, weather in the foothills is a concern. The National Weather Service in Hanford was forecasting triple-digit high temperatures for the central San Joaquin Valley region through Friday in many areas.
Temperatures in the foothills area throughout the remainder of the week will stay in the upper 90s, with a 30% chance of isolated showers and thunderstorms, said weather service meteorologist Cindy Bean.
Bean said there is a chance that isolated to scattered thunderstorms could happen near the Willow fire, with the best chance being this evening into the overnight hours.
She said the possibility of thunderstorms is due to a push of moisture coming up from Arizona, that will push up into the Sierra starting Thursday. The push of moisture is expected to reach higher elevations Saturday, Bean said.
Bean said there is a possibility that dry lightning will occur within the next couple of days, “especially with the first few hours of monsoonal flow.”
“Even if there’s light rain, a lightning strike could happen and that’s the danger of starting new fires,” Bean said.
Road closures still in place include: Willow Canyon Road, Central Camp Road, Autumn Ridge Road (Road 223) and Douglas Ranger Station Road at Trails End.
Norris, the Forest Services spokesman, said there is a concern that dry lightning will be a factor in the next few days for the blaze and firefighters.
However, with nearly 1,500 personnel battling the fire, he said they have lots of eyes in the air and on the ground. If a spot fire were to start nearby, fire personnel should be able to get it out quickly, Norris said.
Another negative effect of the potential thunderstorms is that if there are high and erratic winds, the fire and embers could be pushed around, he said.
Norris added that even if the weather doesn’t bring rain, higher humidity would be beneficial because the blaze won’t catch quite as fast.
Smoke moving east
The blaze has created smoky conditions not only for fire personnel, but for the surrounding communities.
According to the South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team’s smoke forecast, light west winds are expected to push the smoke east of the fire resulting in better air quality for the area. Overnight hours will see higher concentrations of smoke in valleys and drainage bottoms, however.
The fire started Saturday afternoon. A teenage boy who was allegedly igniting some small pine branches with a lighter is being blamed for starting the fire, Madera County District Attorney David Linn said Tuesday.
A community meeting Tuesday night drew a crowd to the North Fork Town Hall. By the meeting’s 7 p.m. start time, nearly all of the chairs were filled and more people were left to stand. Several expressed disgust about the suspected cause of the fire.
David Cooper, the incident commander with Sierra National Forest, said Tuesday that the cost of battling the blaze was $2.1 million and growing.
Dead trees add fuel
The patchwork of dead and dying trees is adding fuel to the blaze, officials said.
Burt Stalter, a Sierra National Forest District field specialist for the Bass Lake Ranger District, said the area burning in the Willow fire has pockets of ponderosa and sugar pine trees from five to 20 acres dying off.
“The resulting fire behavior from these burning dead trees is very intense with flame lengths reaching 300 to 400 feet,” Stalter said.
As a result of the fire, Stalter said it’s pretty hard to put a percentage on the trees that have died, but said it’s probably quite substantial.
Stalter has worked for the district for 26 years and said all species of trees are dying due to insect mortality, and the drought is also causing stress. Currently, the most visible tree dying is pine. White fir, red fir and live oaks also suffer. However, blue and black oak trees are weathering the insect mortality the best.
Meanwhile, the Central California Animal Disaster Team re-opened its emergency animal shelter Wednesday afternoon at Oakhurst Community Center for small animals, Naomi Flam, CCADT’s president and founder, said.
Flam said they closed the shelter Monday because no animals used it. But they decided to reactivate the shelter on Wednesday because Flam had heard that some animals might come in.
Nicole Santos: 559-441-6247, @Iam_NicoleS