The owner of the Kings Canyon Lodge, which was reduced to rubble Friday morning by the Rough fire, said Saturday that firefighters did nothing to battle the blaze as it bore down on the 78-year-old lodge.
It was the first structure claimed by the fire, which as of Sunday morning had spread to 47,396 acres on national forest and parkland, and still was only 7 percent contained.
Owner Lewis Evans said eight engines watched from down the road as fire claimed the lodge, located between Yucca Point and Cedar Grove on East Kings Canyon Road. He said he asked a supervisor to protect the building with hand crews but was told they could only do so on alternating nights.
“They never had a boot on the ground in that first week,” said Evans, who watched the fire, sparked by lightning on July 31, advance on his property. “It wasn’t until it had crossed the Kings River that they started spraying water.”
Evans said crews then formed some fire lines and bulldozed the area.
Rough fire spokeswoman Michelle Eidam denied that firefighters would battle a fire only on alternate nights. She said Evans’ account of firefighter behavior goes against wildfire-fighting tactics.
“We will do whatever we can to defend a structure,” she said.
Eidam said the firefighters wouldn’t have been out there wasting time and resources if they didn’t plan to defend the structure.
However, she said firefighters are told to stop if they see an active fire bearing down on them.
Our hoses aren’t going to do anything against a 50-foot wall of fire. If you stay and try to fight that, you will die.
Rough fire PIO Michelle Eidam
“Our hoses aren’t going to do anything against a 50-foot wall of fire,” she said. “If you stay and try to fight that, you will die.”
Eidam said the incident command was aware that fire was in the area of the lodge, but it only officially recognized its destruction at 5 p.m. Saturday. The debris around the lodge included melted fire hoses.
Evans said that around 3:30 a.m. Friday, a firefighter scouting the blaze knocked on his mobile home at the lodge and told him to leave. He left to secure his vehicles about six miles away, but when he tried to return he was told that he would not be allowed back onto his property and would be arrested if he tried to get back to the lodge.
After he finally returned to his property, he discovered that several cabins were spared from the blaze, and his horses also survived.
Eidam said at 1 p.m. Saturday that the blaze, which grew by more than 5,000 acres overnight, was expected to burn hotter and faster toward Hume Lake Christian Camps.
The most intense fire activity is in the area of the camps, and hotter, drier weather will speed the fire’s progress, Eidam said.
Hume Lake Christian Camps executive director Dathan Brown said that camp leadership has looked to mobilize the Christian community to send hundreds of thousands of prayers to the firefighters, camp staff members, law enforcement and first responders at the camp.
Brown said the staff is hopeful that the camp will be spared, but he is starting to consider alternatives.
“Our camps are not defined by our buildings,” Brown said. “But our mission to deliver the gospel of Jesus will continue.
If God shows up to stop the fire, then great. If not, we can still bring glory to God.
Hume Lake Christian Camps executive director Dathan Brown
“If God shows up to stop the fire, then great,” he said. “If not, we can still bring glory to God.”
The fire management team is concentrating most of its resources on defending the camp at the southeastern point of the fire and the PG&E infrastructure in the Balch Camp area to the northwest. Eidam said PG&E has voluntarily pulled its employees out of the area.
Fresno County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Botti said authorities will hold a community meeting on the Rough fire at 3 p.m. today at the PG&E Recreation Center at 70185 Courtright Road.
Bob Van Tassel is one of the firefighters assigned to protect Hume Lake Christian Camps. The Fresno Fire Department firefighter arrived four days ago as part of a strike team that included engines from Dinuba, Sanger, Reedley and Kingsburg.
Van Tassel said he volunteered for the assignment for personal reasons.
“My wife and I own a cabin up here,” he said. “It’s been in her family since 1964.”
Van Tassel said he was on duty across the camp when fire threatened his cabin a few days ago. He said hand crews were able to defend the structure, and he thanked them personally for their work.
He begins his day with a 6 a.m. briefing, then a quick breakfast before he is assigned to a fire line. His shift ends with dinner at 6 p.m.
Van Tassel praised his fellow firefighters for working diligently to keep the fire from spreading into the camp.
“Every night I see a line of headlamps from the individual members of the hand crews,” he said. “They look tired. Their faces are covered in soot. But they are holding.”
Van Tassel also thanked Hume Lake Christian Camps, which he said has provided much better food and lodging than would the typical wildfire incident command.
With the continuing spread of the fire, the incident command team was moved from Hume Lake Christian Camps to Squaw Valley. Fire teams remain at the camp, which so far has been spared any damage despite the blaze’s growth around it.
Firefighters were back-burning along Highway 180 and Ten Mile Road, the two avenues into Hume Lake Christian Camps, to cut Rough fire’s fuel supply.
A blog post on Hume Lake Christian Camps’ website said that the camp received a fuel shipment. Fire engines had nearly depleted the camp’s diesel supply.
The camp received a food shipment Saturday afternoon, just in time, as its stores had nearly run out after feeding the firefighters for the last few days. Officials said they served breakfast to 308 firefighters on Saturday, and even more firefighters are served dinner each night.
The Web post said the fire has outflanked the back-burning taking place near Ten Mile Road. Crews fear it will cross the road. This could cause the fire to burn to the south of Hume Lake in addition to the north and east, where it is now raging.
In the north, crews are working to keep it from crossing Hume Road, the camp officials said.
The blog post ended with a prayer for all those involved, including Evans, owner of the Kings Canyon Lodge.
Brown, executive director of Hume Lake Christian Camps, said the organization will begin to accept donations through its website to help cover the losses incurred by the camp, which had to cancel several retreats and remain running to support the firefighting effort. And Evans said he has created a gofundme site to help rebuild the lodge.
Rory Appleton: 559-441-6015