Rough fire containment increases; evacuations still loom as Wishon residents warned

Helicopter bucket brigade douses Rough fire

In this video posted on the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Facebook page on Aug. 23, a helicopter is shown dropping water on the fire from above. "Here's a modern version of the olde tyme bucket brigade," the park wrote on its Facebook po
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In this video posted on the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Facebook page on Aug. 23, a helicopter is shown dropping water on the fire from above. "Here's a modern version of the olde tyme bucket brigade," the park wrote on its Facebook po

Favorable weather over the weekend allowed firefighters to attack the Rough fire in Kings Canyon National Park more directly, but residents living in areas north of the blaze were advised Sunday that they, too, should be ready to evacuate.

The fire, sparked by lightning July 31, has now blackened 49,440 acres. Containment, estimated Sunday to be 7 percent, was adjusted to 17 percent Monday morning.

Still, fire officials said Sunday they feel good about the progress made this weekend.

Evacuations remained in place in Cedar Grove, Grant Grove and the Hume Lake areas. But fire officials and the National Park Service announced Sunday evening that Grant Grove and Wilsonia areas of Kings Canyon National Park will reopen in stages over the next two days starting Monday.

The threat to the Hume Lake Christian Camps has eased, as fire crews hold containment lines and direct the blaze away from the camp.

“Although not yet safe, we praise the Lord for each passing day as the burn area near Hume begins to cool,” said a Hume Lake Tumblr blog post Sunday.

Of greater concern now, the blog said, are Bearskin Meadow and the Diabetes Youth Families camp, and “the many campgrounds in the area. Please pray for the protection of those areas as well.”

Kevin Slusarski, a U.S. Forest Service information officer assigned to the Rough fire, said burning operations have been successful and firefighters want to take advantage of recent light winds. On Saturday, they switched from indirect suppression – using aircraft or waiting for the fire to reach them at the containment line – to a direct attack.

“Now, thanks to the favorable weather and conditions, they are able to go direct to the line where the fire is coming,” he said. “Most of that is on the east side of Hume Lake.” He added that a shift in the wind has pushed smoke and the fire more toward the east and toward more wilderness areas.

Sunday afternoon, though, fire officials warned residents near Wishon Reservoir, north of the fire, to be prepared to evacuate on just a few minutes notice.

Close to 75 people showed up to the meeting at a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. facility in Wishon, northeast of Pine Flat Lake, where members of the U.S. Forest Service and the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office explained what they know and answered questions. Residents asked where the fire could spread, whether their properties are in danger and how to help firefighters.

Fire officials were frank. David Cooper, incident commander for the Rough fire, recalled several fires that have burned this area since the 1980s. But he said none crossed the Kings River like the Rough fire has. On Aug. 12, it crossed the middle fork of the river, then later jumped the south fork.

“It was so dry – usually it would hit a rock and stop,” he said. “But this thing was burning the moss and going across the rock shelves.”

Firefighters have a plan in place and have started making contingency lines in case the fire crosses the north fork of the river. They hope to secure the north fork and the Balch camp near the Black Rock Reservoir area in the next couple of days.

Cooper said efforts have so far been successful. He said some rain might come into the area but that is not certain.

During a question and answer session, one woman asked how much notice communities get before being evacuated. She said she owns a private RV park at Pine Flat Lake and worries about the boats people leave there permanently.

Cooper said the forest service works with the sheriff’s office to release advisories when it looks like fire might reach an area.

Officials said one of the best ways to help is for homeowners to prepare their homes for evacuation in advance of a warning or order. That includes pulling flammables away from the home, keeping green areas watered, cleaning gutters and debris fields, and preparing valuable items before an evacuation order, which could leave as little as five minutes to move.

Forest service officials said homeowners could even put up signs above water tanks they are willing to let firefighters use. And when evacuations do hit, they said homeowners should leave their utilities on and gates open but doors locked. They mentioned the recent Willow fire, during which several homes were burglarized after homeowners left the doors unlocked.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said social media is an important tool, including the sheriff’s office Twitter page. She said many people found out about Sunday’s meeting on Nextdoor.com, a social network site for neighborhoods.

One of those at Sunday’s meeting was Trish Anthony, 46, who said she has barely let her three children outside the since the Rough fire caused hazy smoke to fill the Wishon area.

“I think we’re all just getting pretty nervous because it’s grown so rapidly and the amount of acreage it’s burning per day is just mind-blowing,” she said. “We can’t breath. We’ve had to stay in the house the last three days. I have three little kids and I’m not going to put them outside. It’s very, very worrisome.”

Anthony asked how up-to-date the online InciWeb fire updates are. Officials said there is a lag, sometimes up to 24 hours, as the fire grows and employees change shifts. Anthony said she knows firefighters can’t predict exactly what it will do.

“I know they can’t predict the future,” she said. “But it was good to get a glimpse of the worst-case scenario because it could become reality.”

On Friday, the Kings Canyon Lodge became the first structure claimed by the fire. No other structures have been reported damaged, but firefighters are continuing structure protection and mitigation efforts, moving flammable objects like canisters of fuel and wood panels away from structures in the fire’s path, said Slusarski, the forest services spokesman.

There was little active burning overnight Saturday, which allowed firefighters to take further control of the fire, particularly in the Hume Lake area. The Forest Service said the threat to Hume Lake has been greatly reduced due to favorable weather, successful burning operations and direct suppression efforts.

Firefighters continued suppression efforts from the northwest side, continuing in the Ten Mile Creek area near Landslide Campground. Aircraft also continue to be used.

Slusarski said the wind shifted from southwest to west, pushing both smoke and the flames toward the east. Webcams at Hume Lake showed the air was clearer than last week.

The Hume Lake Tumblr blog called Hume Lake Rough Fire Info sought prayers for the fire to stay away from the Hume Lake basin, the protection of cabins at Weston Meadows, the owner of Kings Canyon Lodge and for Bearskin Meadow Camp. It also sought prayers for rain – or snow.

The blog noted that back fires are helping crews hold containment lines and direct the fire away from Hume Lake.

Of greater concern now, the blog said, are Bearskin Meadow and the Diabetes Youth Families camp, and “the many campgrounds in the area. Please pray for the protection of those areas as well.”

At noon Monday, a number of facilities in the Grant Grove area will reopen, including the John Muir Lodge, Grant Grove Cabins, market, park trails and the General Grant Tree. At 8 a.m. Tuesday the Kings Canyon Visitor Center will reopen, and at noon Tuesday the Sunset Campground will open. Officials, though, warned that air quality will be very unhealthy to hazardous due to smoke and advised campers to camp in hard-sided vehicles like RVs and trailer.

Visitors to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks still can travel the Generals Highway from the Big Stump entrance station to the Ash Mountain entrance station, fire officials said.

On the northwest edge of the fire, crews were working to protect Pacific Gas & Electric Co. infrastructure in the Balch camp area.

Evacuation warning notices have been issued to residents of Sequoia Highlands, northeast of Dunlap. These communities include Crabtree, Sampson Flat, Davis Flat and Clover Meadows, and the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office is advising residents to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

Andrea Castillo: 559-441-6279, @andreamcastillo Staff writer Bridget Webster contributed to this report.

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