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Living on tinder hooks in forest fire country

Living on tinder hooks in forest fire country
A helicopter flies over Willow Creek Canyon as the Willow fire burns near Bass Lake. A mandatory evacuation was ordered for Cascadel Woods, a hamlet about a mile from the flames. (Eric Paul Zamora / Fresno Bee)

From this teensy town, which bills itself as the "exact center of California," the Willow fire did not look especially menacing. White smoke billowed up, away from people, away from homes, into the Sierra National Forest's clear blue sky.

Scattered homes and two campgrounds near the fire area had been evacuated over the weekend, but no one sought refuge with the Red Cross in Oakhurst until Thursday, when a mandatory evacuation was ordered for Cascadel Woods, a hamlet about a mile from the flames. The local pet shelter tended 20 displaced cats and dogs, plus one goldfish.

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Vacationers a few miles away at Bass Lake paused to watch the weirdly picturesque scene. They were fascinated by the Sky Crane helicopters, which arrived at the lake every few minutes, looking like wasps as they dipped their stingers into the water to fill up. Up on the ridge lines, fixed-wing jets let out their loads of retardant, leaving brilliant orange trails that disappeared into the treetops.

In North Fork's community center, the women's club had just finished putting out dinner for a citizens group working on a plan to revitalize the site of the town's old mill, which closed in 1996.

"When it's this close, it's scary," said Donna Rodriguez, who has already been through two other forest fires this season. A transplant from what she described as Sonoma County's "rat race," she has adapted to life in forest fire country in unexpected ways.

"In the summer here," she said, "the first thing you do in the morning is open your door and smell."

The Willow fire, about 40 miles northeast of Fresno, is not the biggest wildfire burning in California this week. Nor is it the scariest fire of the season. That distinction, for my money, goes to the North fire, whose fast-moving flames jumped busy Interstate 15 in the Cajon Pass, torching 20 cars and semis that were trapped in traffic.

But the state's extreme drought, which has left trees and soil devoid of moisture, means that any wildfire has the potential to grow into something frightful.

There are other exacerbating factors as well. No major fire has burned through this part of the forest in more than 100 years. And a tiny beetle has been ravaging the pine trees, taking advantage of their weakened state by infesting their bark. If you didn't know better, the forest's riot of green and gold might put you in mind of New England during leaf-peeping season. Except the gold trees are dead.

When they ignite, they don't just burn; they explode.

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Fires create their own weather systems. They also create their own communities. Less than two days after the Willow blaze started, a temporary firefighting village had sprung up on a vacant lot near North Fork's abandoned mill site, complete with a "Main Street" running between white trailers. Across the way, someone was already selling $20 commemorative T-shirts.

Some 1,545 firefighters from more than a dozen federal, state and local agencies had gathered at the command center, some from as far away as New Mexico.

"We're a well-oiled machine," said Sean Collins, a Kern County firefighter who doubles as public information officer for the consortium in charge of this fire, the South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team. "We know our jobs."

All the experience in the world, though, does not change the fact that firefighters toil in extreme conditions. They work in steep, unforgiving terrain, hacking away at dead trees, grasses and chaparral to carve firebreaks into the earth. They carry packs that weigh 35 to 45 pounds. They eat 5,000-calorie meals. They work 12-hour shifts.

Later, as I turned in for the night at my comfortable hotel, I pictured the firefighters on the mountain and felt a twinge of guilt.

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Twice a day, at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., the firefighters gather in a big semicircle around a makeshift stage to receive their assignments and updates on the blaze, which has consumed more than 3,000 acres.

Meteorologist Dan Harty warned of the inversion that occurs at night, when smoke, instead of drifting up, settles on the ground. "No clouds in the sky," said Harty, "but lots of smoke up there to worry about."

Taro Pusina, a fire behavior analyst who works for the National Park Service in Yosemite, tells firefighters what the fire is expected to do.

Midweek, as he correctly predicted, the fire was spreading rapidly in some areas. All the fuel meant crews were having trouble taming its "hot edge."

On Thursday, the fire was 30% contained but moving slowly toward homes, prompting the mandatory evacuation, said Cody Norris of the U.S. Forest Service.

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Early this week, Madera County Dist. Atty. David Linn announced the fire was started Saturday by a teenage boy who had been hiking with his family in a remote area. Linn said Wednesday he expects to charge the boy, a juvenile, with a criminal misdemeanor that could result in detention and counseling.

The boy told investigators that he took a lighter and ran into the forest with a sibling. He picked up a pine branch and lighted the needles to watch them burn. The needles dropped onto the parched forest floor, igniting it.

The teen, who had attended a fire safety program at his school, tried to clear away ground cover, Linn said. When that failed, he ripped off his shirt and tried to beat the fire out. His parents tried to douse the fire with water. They called 911 as soon as they reached a road with cell service.

So far, the fire hasn't claimed any lives or destroyed any homes. Three firefighters have suffered from dehydration, but no one has been seriously injured. And rain is on the way.

Twitter: @AbcarianLAT

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