As an ominous massive cloud of smoke from the Detwiler Fire loomed over the horizon Wednesday evening roughly 30 to 40 miles southeast of Sonora, the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office was telling residents to start preparing for possible evacuations south of Highway 120 between Smith Station Road and the town of Moccasin.
The Sheriff’s Office also issued an evacuation warning, meaning the chance of an order to evacuate is imminent, for the areas of Jackass Creek Road, Jackass Ridge, Cuneo Road and Priest Coulterville Road.
“It’s moving,” Scott McLean, spokesman for Cal Fire in Sacramento, said of the fire Wednesday afternoon. “It’s just like a freight train.”
An estimated 5,000 people have fled their homes in Mariposa County due to the fast-moving blaze that started Sunday afternoon and has burned about 48,000 acres, destroyed 29 structures and damaged five others as of Wednesday at 7 p.m., according to Cal Fire.
Cal Fire stated 1,500 structures remain under threat, the same number as reported earlier in the day.
The latest update increased the number of structures the fire has destroyed by 21, though the number of acres burned was only 2,276 more after growing by about 25,000 acres between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
Seven percent of the blaze was contained by Wednesday night, the same percentage reported earlier that morning. The expected date for full containment is Tuesday.
“Firefighters faced high temperatures along with dry and drought stressed chaparral and grass,” Cal Fire stated in Wednesday night’s update. “Steep and inaccessible terrain continue to challenge control lines.”
As of Wednesday night’s update, the cause of the fire remained under investigation and no injuries had been reported.
Tuolumne County residents with special needs or livestock in the areas under evacuation warning were advised to consider leaving and to contact the Sheriff’s Office if they need special assistance.
Those who choose to evacuate were asked to take a northern route to Highway 120.
The Red Cross has set up an evacuation shelter at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds at 220 Southgate Drive in Sonora that can accommodate animals both large and small. Between 20 to 25 people had checked into the shelter as of about 6 p.m. Wednesday.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Sgt. Andrea Benson stated in an email that the fire had yet to cross over into Tuolumne County as of about 8 p.m. Wednesday.
“These are precautionary measures due to the unpredictability of wildfires,” Benson stated in regards to the evacuation advisory and warnings.
Emily Kilgore, fire prevention specialist and public information officer for Cal Fire’s Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit, said she was informed the fire was “fanning out” to the north, east and south, as opposed to moving one direction.
Kilgore and Benson both referred questions about how many miles away the north end of the fire was from the county line to Cal Fire’s Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit, the lead agency assigned to the blaze.
No one who could speak on the record answered the two phone numbers listed for media inquiries about the fire throughout Wednesday, and a message left for the unit’s main headquarters went unreturned.
McLean also said he didn’t know how far away the blaze was from reaching Tuolumne County.
Representatives from the Sheriff’s Office,Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit, Tuolumne County Office of Emergency Services, Tuolumne County Fire Department, Board of Supervisors, and Groveland Community Services District, participated in a closed-door briefing Wednesday afternoon about the fire’s potential impacts on Tuolumne County, which lasted over an hour at the Emergency Operations Center on Striker Court.
Cal Fire personnel from “as far as Siskiyou County to the Mexican border” were likely to join the effort, McLean said. There were 413 engines, 57 water tenders, 14 helicopters, an unspecified number of air tankers, 56 hand crews, 70 dozers and 3,175 personnel assigned to the fire as of Wednesday night.
The cost of battling the blaze as of Wednesday afternoon was $3.25 million.
McLean said the number of hand crews assigned to the fire indicated it was burning on a lot of steep terrain where dozers are unable to reach.
The fire was reported just before 4 p.m. Sunday in the area of Detwiler Road and Hunters Valley Road, about two miles east of Lake McClure. The fire had burned more than 19,000 acres as of Tuesday evening, but grew by more than 25,000 acres overnight.
One of the reasons the blaze was moving fast is due to the previous five years of drought combined with heavy fuel that grew from ample rain over winter and has since dried out, according to McLean.
Unlike the 2013 Rim Fire that burned 257,000 acres mostly in areas with dense tree stands, McLean described the terrain in the Detwiler Fire as “carpets of brush.”
“Not a piece of brush here or a plant there, it’s acres and acres of solid brush,” McLean said. “When embers fall into this carpet, it’s 100 percent certain — not 99 percent — that it will start a fire.”
Wildfire behavior throughout the state has become significantly more intense over the past several years because of the drought, McLean said.
Whereas fires in the past would often “lay down” at night and give time for personnel and resources to regroup, “This one is burning almost as if it’s in the middle of the day at night,” McLean said.
McLean said wildfires burned 130,000 acres from Jan. 1 to Sunday when the Detwiler Fire began, compared 30,000 acres over the same period last year.
The Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit alone has battled three wildfires aside from helping with the Detwiler Fire in the past several days.
One fire that broke out late Tuesday night and burned a half-acre near Mount Provo Road was contained later that night. Another on Tuesday night burned 19 acres 10 miles east of Oakdale before it was contained, and the Maria Fire that ignited Monday night at Jesus Maria and Music Gulch roads in Mokelumne Hill had burned 117 acres and was 80 percent contained as of 7:15 p.m. Wednesday.
“The results of the drought are here,” McLean said. “This is a prime example of what we’ve been talking about and why not to be complacent.”
Mike Anderson, 54, and Ed Anderson, 74, left their home in Coulterville about noon Wednesday after being told the fire was a mile-and-a-half away and they had 20 minutes to leave. They were among the first to arrive at the fairgrounds in Sonora when the evacuation shelter opened about 3 p.m.
The Andersons said they only had to time to quickly douse some water on their landscaping and get some their most valued possessions, including their two cats — Shadow and Katt — whom they took to the Tuolumne County Humane Society shelter in Jamestown.
“They didn’t like the ride up here,” Ed Anderson said of the cats.
“I had to carry her on my lap,” Mike Anderson said of his cat, Shadow.
Mike Anderson said they drove through heavy smoke from Coulterville to Old Priest Grade that reminded him of the smoke from the Rim Fire at its height. Ed Anderson added that the biggest difference was there was more ash falling from the current fire, which he said looked like snow.
They had gathered their most important documents, including proof of fire insurance, and other belongings the night before when their road was put under evacuation advisory. Mike Anderson said he had cleared brush around their home well over the 100-feet required by state law, so he’s hopeful that they’ll return soon to find it still standing.
Both men said they had nowhere else to go and would likely stay at the shelter until they are allowed to return home.
Despite the fact that neither knew the status of their house, they both remained in good spirits and were helping to direct other evacuees find parking and where they could take their animals in the fairgrounds livestock area.
“I can’t do anything about it, so I can’t get stressed,” Mike Anderson said. “I won’t say I’m not upset about it, but I won’t dwell on it.”
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.