Pioneer spirit pays off in fire

Times Staff Writers

Folks in this wide spot on the road to Yosemite National Park don’t shy from saying they’re a town with a foot in the 19th century. So when flames began roaring through the Mariposa County backcountry, they responded with pioneer gumption.

One family penned its beloved donkey in a mine shaft so he could escape the Telegraph fire. Neighbors helped save a rancher’s prized Arabians by arriving with a cavalry charge of horse trailers. And countless denizens stepped up with cowboy ethos, going it alone against flames threatening remote homesteads that firefighters couldn’t reach.

As the smoke cleared Wednesday and the bare-knuckle fight against the 32,000-acre blaze appeared all but won, stories emerged from the woods -- tales of heroism and neighborly love and Old West spirit.

More than 3,500 firefighters turned the tide against the five-day-old inferno, now 40% contained, after it claimed 21 houses and, at its worst moments, appeared ready for a run toward nearby Yosemite.


But make no mistake: Les Shelby saved his own place.

The log-sided house is perched on a steep, wooded hillside of pines and brush. Shelby drove through the worst of the inferno -- fire on all sides -- to arrive just as the first flames were licking at his wood entry deck.

His wife, Lila, used bottled water to douse the hot spots smoldering on the deck while Shelby grabbed a garden hose.

Firefighters arrived and urged them to leave. Lila fled with them. Les refused.

“It sounded like a freight train roaring up the hillside,” Shelby said. “I was scared to death but I was so intent on saving the house.”

His efforts worked. A ring of blackened ground now surrounds the house. But the two-story structure bears nary a scorch. “We arrived in the nick of time,” Shelby said, surveying the charred hillside. “A few minutes later, it would have been done -- our house wouldn’t have survived.”

As flames bore down on Carrie Cogdell’s place one ridgeline over, the 36-year-old mother prepared to flee with her husband and four children. Also on the evacuation manifest: a dog, four ducks, a cat and two kittens.

But there was no budging Eddie Murphy.

A lovable but crusty donkey, Eddie is stereotypically stubborn about boarding a horse trailer. Instead of bothering with that fight, the Cogdells came up with an alternative. They led him into an old hard rock-mining shaft on their 10-acre property and penned him in with two days of food.

A few days after the worst of the blaze subsided, her husband hiked in to find their home unscathed -- and Eddie doing just fine. “It’s been a roller coaster,” Cogdell said. “I’m ready to go home.”

Mariposa County Supervisor Brad Aborn has his own horse story.

He and his wife run Flying A Ranch, where they breed prized black Arabians. When the fire threatened, neighbors showed up with horse trailers to help pack out the ranch’s three stallions and more than a dozen mares.

“It was like the 1800s, when you had barn-raisings,” Aborn said. “People pitched in like you can’t believe.”

The horses are being temporarily housed at the county fairgrounds, along with the family’s 14 sheep.

Aborn and family, meanwhile, bunked down that first night at his office in the county building in Mariposa. His children got sleeping bags. Aborn slept on a blanket.

“It’s an adventure -- sort of like my survival training in the Navy,” he said. “But a little different with a wife, and kids and horses.”