A wildfire near Bass Lake grew by a third as it pushed through a large granite face on its northern side, federal officials said Thursday morning.
The expansion of the Willow Fire led to a mandatory evacuation Thursday morning of the Cascadel Woods community east of North Fork because of the advance of the Willow fire, which has grown to nearly 4,000 acres.
At least one family was already gone.
Dakota Johnson, 18, her grandmother Juanita Williams and cousin Alexis Bates got a head start after hearing Wednesday night that an evacuation was likely. They were already at the Oakhurst Red Cross shelter Wednesday evening.
“We could see black smoke rising and my grandma didn’t want to wait until the last minute to leave,” Johnson said. “We could also see helicopters flying over our house and heard lots of sirens. A little further down, at my cousin’s house, they could see flames.”
Williams said her home in North Fork Rancheria is the last one on Mission Drive. The family car is broken down, so they caught a ride out.
Johnson said family members started gathering key items as soon as they heard the pre-evacuation notice: “We made sure to grab important documents, like birth certificates, pictures, clothes and our two Chihuahuas.”
We could see black smoke rising and my grandma didn’t want to wait until the last minute to leave.
Dakota Johnson, whose family evacuated the Cascadel Woods area Wednesday night
Johnson, a recent graduate of Minarets High School in North Fork, made sure to grab her class schedule because she starts school in August at Fresno City College.
She said the Red Cross staff has been very helpful in providing them with food and water, and she has been monitoring the Willow fire on social media, hoping firefighters get the fire out fast.
“I thought the fire was pretty far from our home but when I saw the map it looks far, but it’s actually really close,” Johnson said. “I hope to go home soon.”
Incident commanders said firefighters are focused on establishing a perimeter near the 2001 North Fork fire to protect Cascadel Woods, southeast of where the fire started, east of Bass Lake.
Madera County Sheriff’s Lt. Bill Ward said the mandatory evacuation in the Cascadel Woods community includes all residences off of Road 233, Mission Drive, Peckinpah Acres Drive and the subdivision.
Also, the Douglas Ranger Station Road mandatory evacuation has been expanded to include the remainder of Douglas Ranger Station Road, Trails End Road, Wild Rose Lane and Elderberry Road.
The American Red Cross evacuation center is at the Oakhurst Community Center, 39800 Road 425B. The shelter’s manager, Sandy Morehouse, said 16 people had arrived by noon Thursday with more expected. The Central California Animal Disaster Team shelter at the community center received two pets Thursday morning.
It was pretty crazy because firefighters were driving by my street wondering if I was going to get out.
Peter Matthews, whose evacuation from the Cascadel Woods area Thursday morning was delayed by a dead car battery
North Fork resident Peter Matthews, 30, his mother Angelina Matthews and their dog Piper were among those at the shelter. Peter Matthews said they live about 200 yards from Cascadel Woods and had been ready to evacuate since Sunday. At 8 a.m. Thursday, a sheriff’s deputy came to the house and said, “It’s time to go!”
Matthews said the fire was intense late Wednesday night: “I was watching inferno flames, mostly red and orange, that were at least 300 feet tall and less than a quarter mile from my driveway.” He said that as he prepared to evacuate Thursday morning, the smoke made it hard to breathe and his car had a quarter-inch layer of ash on it.
“And I left my car window down in the back so I had a little bit of ash inside, too. What made things worse, I left my lights on and I had to put the charger on my battery. It was pretty crazy because firefighters were driving by my street, wondering if I was going to get out because I had the charger on my car.”
On top of essentials, Matthews hauled out his DVD collection stand and television. “As close as the fire is and with how big the flames are, I’m actually not expecting anything to be left,” he said. “I’m expecting everything to be burnt down and just rummaging through the wreckage picking up whatever might be left, but it would be nice if the house survived.”
Cost hits $6.5 million
U.S. Forest Service spokesman Cody Norris said the fire is active on the northern, southeast and eastern fronts; firefighters on the west side have good containment.
There are no reported heat-related injuries, no fatalities and still no damage to structures, homes or outbuildings, he said.
Norris said weather was expected to be hot and dry Thursday, and fire personnel would be alert for a possible monsoonal front later in the evening.
Norris said the cost of fighting the fire has gone up to $6.5 million. On Wednesday it was reported at $4.7 million.
The fire, which officials say was started Saturday afternoon by a teenage boy lighting pine branches on fire, is now at 3,383 acres.
The Madera County District Attorney said Thursday that it doesn’t expect official reports from the U.S. Forest Service until sometime next week because of the Willow Fire’s continued expansion. The DA needs those reports before it can determine whether to file formal charges against the teen.
Containment remains at 30%, according to the latest report from the U.S. Forest Service, and the growth of the fire was not unexpected.
The forest service says much of the growth of the fire was on the northern flank where it pushed through a large granite face known as 7-Rock.
The forest service says it stopped a direct attack on the southern flank because of a concern for firefighter safety and the likelihood that an attack won’t succeed in stopping the fire there. The southern edge of the fire is established in the previously burned area and resistance to control along the flanks increases because of dense brush and larger dead timber debris, intermingled with a concentration of tree snags.
Smoke from the Willow fire is wafting into the central San Joaquin Valley, and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has issued a health warning for residents with particular medical conditions who might be affected by it.
Nicole Santos: 559-441-6247, @Iam_NicoleS