A week after a teen boy allegedly lit pine branches with a lighter and sparked a raging wildfire, fire officials reported that the Willow fire could be mostly under control by Monday.
The biggest risk for the fire spreading is to the southeast, toward the Cascadel Woods subdivision where some residents have refused to obey evacuation orders.
As of Sunday morning, the fire had grown to 5,656 acres. More than 2,000 firefighters have the blaze 60% contained, and the firefighting costs swelled from $8.2 million on Friday to $10.5 million Saturday, Cal Fire said.
Air quality in North Fork, Oakhurst and Prather is expected to be moderate Sunday and good Monday, according to a report issued Sunday morning. Air quality is expected to be moderate Tuesday in North Fork and good in the other regions.
Willow Fire containment operations on Saturday increased smoke and emission production in the forecast area and the San Joaquin Valley, the report said. With those operations complete, smoke production is expected to decrease, bringing relief to the foothills and some Valley areas.
Mandatory evacuations are still in place for the Central Camp area, Douglas Ranger Station Road and the Cascadel Woods community. Evacuees were directed to an American Red Cross shelter at the Oakhurst Community Center, 39800 Road 425 B. Willow Canyon Road, Central Camp Road, Autumn Ridge Road and Douglas Ranger Station Road remain closed.
At a community meeting at the North Fork Town Hall on Saturday afternoon, incident commander David Cooper said residents would be allowed to return to their homes once the fire is deemed under control.
That was good news for the many people who have been living with friends, relatives or at the shelter in the past week.
The fire is mostly contained on its eastern and western borders. It is spreading most towards the southeast, where crews are working to burn trees and other fuel in its path. If it breaks the southeastern containment lines, it will hit homes in Cascadel Woods.
Cal Fire spokesman Bennet Milloy said that a few Cascadel Woods residents chose to ignore the mandatory evacuation order.
“We knocked on all the doors and told people to leave,” Milloy said. “We can keep people from entering once they have left, but we can’t physically remove them from their homes.”
“You have the right to stay in your home and die.”
Those who stayed behind could cause problems for firefighters should the fire actually make it to Cascadel Woods, Milloy said. Only one road leads into the area, and anyone trying to flee the fire will cause delays for fire trucks trying to enter or leave the community.
Incident management spokesman Raj Singh said those who disobeyed the evacuation order have also forfeited their right to emergency services. Should they call 911, first responders are not legally compelled to respond.
“We’re firefighters, though,” Singh said. “We are here to help people. We will try to help if they need it, but it puts a strain on resources that would otherwise be used to fight the fire.”
Cooper expects containment to climb to 90% or 95% by the end of next week. At that point, most of the firefighters will be allowed to leave the area, and the local forest service will handle the final mopping-up.
Although 450 structures are threatened, none has been damaged. Cooper said he does not expect any to be damaged.
At the North Fork town meeting, the crowd of around 100 cheered when Cooper mentioned the lack of damage so far. Although many there were wearing the same outfit they left home in a few days ago, the mood was generally bright. Some asked questions, but most spent time thanking the firefighters for their efforts.
Jenny Roope, who moved to North Fork in 1941, sat on her walker in the front row.
“I am overcome by the love and the care of my friends and neighbors,” Roope, 79, said later.
Roope evacuated her home on Douglas Ranger Station Road, where she lives alone, shortly after the fire broke out on July 25.
“I knew I had to get out before I became a detriment,” said Roope, who uses the walker because of Lyme disease complications.
“I had been letting a younger couple I know use my van to go to the doctor’s office,” she continued. “So I had no way out. But when I called, this young man rushed over and got me out of there.”
Roope said she only had time to pack one extra outfit, an extra pair of socks and her pajamas before she left. She’s been staying with her daughter in Oakhurst while the fire rages.
Roope, who graduated from Sierra High School in 1954, said she’s been through dozens of wildfire evacuations over the years — most of them much worse than this one.
“It’s horrible every time — just the destruction of it all,” she said. “In 1987, we had a series of lightning fires. Those actually made it to the town. I was one of the last to leave, and I remember bursting into tears as I saw the firefighters preparing to fight the flames in front of our local church.”
However, decades of natural disaster aren’t enough to break Roope’s faith in the strength of her community.
“We deal with it, and we move on,” Roope said. “We grieve — I still cry every time. But we have to go on.”
Right now, the streets of North Fork are nearly empty, and most of the offices and local shops are closed.
North Fork Supermarket remains open. Employees say the rush of residents purchasing supplies and the wave of firefighters and other relief workers — whose numbers are comparable to the 3,000 or so people living in the town — have kept them extremely busy.
Although few people are out and about, signs of support for firefighters are everywhere. These range from the elaborate, like the 10-foot banner hanging from the tribal offices of the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians, to the dozens of small signs hand-painted on scrap wood and placed at the dirt-road entrances to many homes.
Six firefighters have been injured during the battle: Four suffered dehydration, while two others are being treated for minor burns, Cal Fire said.
More than 1 million gallons of water — much of it from Bass Lake — has been used to fight the flames. Crews have also used more than 600,000 gallons of fire retardant during the battle.
Cal Fire’s Rick Dowell, who has been a firefighter since 1986, was at University Square Hotel in Fresno with 18 other firefighters for some down time before getting up at 4 a.m. Sunday to go back to the Willow fire at 6 a.m. In addition to resting, he said, he was doing laundry and checking in with the family.
There were several fire rigs parked in the hotel parking lot and the adjacent lot at Marie Callender’s at Cedar and Shaw avenues.
He said they are making progress on the fire, but there are still a lot of hot spots on the interior of the fire.
“This fire is a bit more extreme than normal because of four years of the drought, and a lot of dead trees,” he said.
“Fighting the fire is difficult because it’s steep, hot and (the temperatures) are as miserable as they’ve been here,” he said, even with the fire’s higher elevation.