After an anxious four-day wait, wildfire evacuees return to Mariposa

Holly Ericson, owner of Castillo's Mexican Food, wipes ash off the outdoor patio of her restaurant in Mariposa, Calif., on Friday.
Holly Ericson, owner of Castillo’s Mexican Food, wipes ash off the outdoor patio of her restaurant in Mariposa, Calif., on Friday.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Evacuated residents returned to Mariposa on Friday as cash registers were once again ringing up summer tourism purchases in this gateway town to Yosemite National Park.

Local merchants had waited anxiously for this moment since Tuesday, when a fast-moving wildfire caused residents to flee this rustic Sierra Nevada enclave of gift shops, restaurants and historic sites.

But even as residents returned, smoke continued to hang in the air from the devastating Detwiler fire, which has so far scorched about 74,000 acres.

The rustic Gold Rush town of 2,000 straddles a two-mile stretch of Highway 140, about 40 west of Yosemite Valley. It is the economic and cultural heart of Mariposa County, with a hospital, museum, fairgrounds and the region’s only high school.

“Reopening Mariposa businesses is a priority,” Kristie Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Department, said. “And we would not be doing this if we didn’t believe it was safe to do so.”


The fire, which began on Sunday and has destroyed 50 homes, was only 15% contained on Friday, authorities said. Temperatures in the area were forecast to remain above normal, with highs topping 90 degrees.

Among the first to open her doors for business was Heidi Dulcich, manager of Coast Hardware in the center of town.

As an employee hurriedly set up the store’s sidewalk display of lawn mowers, air conditioners and chainsaw lubricant, Dulcich expressed mixed feelings about the decision by Cal Fire and the Sheriff’s Department to lift the evacuation.

“I’m happy, of course, but the evacuation went on way, way too long,” she said. “After all, the town’s electrical power is on, and there’s no fire coming over the mountain.”

A block down the street, Gail White-Stickles, 64, was preparing to hang an “open” sign on the door of her yoga studio.

“It’s a center of love, laughter and comfort in a community that could use some right now,” she said.

On Sunday, she made one of the first 911 calls to report the Detwiler fire after it erupted near her home on a ranch about 19 miles outside of town.

“We watched it grow into a horrible monster — then spin around and burn a side of our house,” she said, shaking her head.

A few doors down, Jim Platto, 71, was taking stock of the potential financial losses at his family-owned restaurant, which he said has been enjoying “a truly wonderful year for business.”

“We’ve been grossing upwards of $3,000 a night,” he said. “Now, we’re wondering what our business and staff can expect from insurance and the emergency declaration [issued by Gov. Jerry Brown].”

Elsewhere, townfolk and ranchers, some of whom cut down their property fences to help livestock escape when the fire came within a mile of Mariposa’s historic district, were gathering at street corners and gas stations to share survival stories.

The lifting of the evacuation order was a relief for many of the roughly 600 Mariposa County residents who took refuge at a half-dozen Red Cross shelters in the community of Oakhurst, about 30 miles to the south.

By Friday, many of them were losing patience with conflicting messages from authorities about when they could return home.

Matthew Lundberg, 54, and his wife, Sharon, who is bedridden with Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and memory loss, arrived at a shelter with their own pillows and a sack full of prescription medications.

“The Red Cross has been wonderful to us,” Lundberg said. “But they don’t know the little things that make life bearable for Sharon, who wants so badly to go home.”

On Wednesday, Richard Kramer, 67, was camping out with his partner Cole Johnson, 55, in a tent outside the Oakhurst Mountain Christian Center as they struggled to find more stable housing.

The air was thick and hazy with smoke from the fire that was devouring surrounding stands of dense, dry forest. Kramer, who has emphysema, said his home on Agua Fria Road had burned down.

“I’m having a hell of a time breathing,” said Kramer, who wore a bright green Hawaiian shirt — the only shirt he owns now.


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