Residents Concerned About Calif. Wildfire Response

July 30--EL PORTAL -- Jerry Rupert was enjoying a nice, cool shower alongside his home in Old El Portal -- something he likes to do in the summer -- when flames swooped into his backyard Saturday afternoon.

While soaping up, he heard a "crack" -- presumably a falling oak branch -- and saw a power line bow and sway like a "bungie cord." The 63-year-old then heard a loud whirring noise, and 10 to 15 seconds later, there was a "boom." Fire struck about 50 feet behind his home and flew up the hill "like a freight train."

"Within a couple minutes, this whole hill was on fire," Rupert said Tuesday, pointing behind his cedar-sided, three-bedroom home. "It was just nuts. It was absolutely nuts. The flames were just ripping."

That blaze, the El Portal fire, has since grown to 3,545 acres and was 34% contained Tuesday evening. About 864 fire personnel are working to extinguish it.

Tuesday in El Portal started smoky and overcast, but the hot day ended with blue skies and a beautiful sunset. Today's forecast calls for a high of 99 with a 20% chance of thunderstorms, said Jeff Barlow, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Hanford.

Old El Portal -- a small, mostly bedroom community along Highway 140 for Yosemite National Park employees -- was evacuated early Sunday, but residents were allowed to return Tuesday morning.

Up and over the hill in Foresta, a duplex and house that shared an address were destroyed on the first day of the fire. Foresta's community of about 45 homes remains evacuated.

On Saturday afternoon, Rupert said, he was among a handful of neighbors armed with garden hoses and shovels who battled the fire for about 45 minutes before firefighters took over behind his house.

Up the hill, the fiery "freight train" was headed straight for Wendy Harrell's one-bedroom cottage on the edge of town. The 59-year-old screamed for help as flames consumed vegetation about 10 feet from her back porch.

Of El Portal homes near the fire, her house -- and her next-door neighbor's home, also high on the hill -- were the "most vulnerable," she said.

Harrell and her neighbor grabbed garden hoses and headed into smoke "so thick you couldn't breathe."

"We kept calling to each other, to make sure we hadn't passed out."

In the chaos, firefighters arrived. As they stood beside a nearby fire hydrant, Harrell said, "I was screaming, 'Turn on the water, turn on the water.' " It took them about 10 minutes, she said.

As she waited, "There was too much adrenaline flowing in my veins to cry ... but I was screaming. I was screaming 'Help' because I wanted them to do something. ... That was a terrible and powerless feeling."

Later, Harrell was given a reason for the delay: Firefighters were waiting for air support to arrive. Harrell said she doesn't want to complain, but she wants to advocate for a "faster, better, more coordinated fire response" in the future.

But, she said, it could have been worse. A few years ago, a monster snowstorm felled "zillions" of trees, followed by crews who thinned much of the remaining vegetation. That combination reduced the intensity of the fire in El Portal, she said. "Fire abatement does make a lot of difference. I saw it Saturday."

Harrell, an El Portal resident since 1989, has grown accustomed to summer wildfires, but none have ever come so close.

The Yosemite area has been hit with some big fires in recent years, including last year's massive Rim fire, which burned 250,000 acres north of the El Portal fire site, and the 2009 Big Meadow fire -- a controlled burn in the Foresta area that grew out of bounds and consumed 7,425 acres.

According to fire officials, areas of concern for the El Portal fire are along the fire's northern edge, bumping into the burn perimeter of the Big Meadow fire.

A smoke advisory is in place in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks because of the El Portal fire and the French fire in Madera County.

Sierra National Forest officials advises residents and visitors to plan outdoor activities for times and places with low smoke levels.

Firefighters are working in very steep, remote terrain, battling a fire that is fueled by extremely dry vegetation.

But Saturday's fire wasn't inevitable, Rupert said. "There was no excuse for having tree branches hanging over power lines in such a high-prone fire-risk area," he said, noting that he "chewed out" some Pacific Gas & Electric workers who came to El Portal to investigate the blaze.

Rupert said one man told him the tree above the line where he saw the fire start "was scheduled to have some maintenance on it.

"I said, 'Yeah. A lot of good that does now.' "

Pacific Gas & Electric spokesman Denny Boyles said the company is cooperating with National Park Service and fire officials in the ongoing investigation.

Boyles said the company has a number of programs and policies aimed at preventing power-line-related fires, and that on any given day, the company has about 650 contract crews working to keep vegetation clear of power lines.

From his front yard Tuesday, Rupert pointed to at least two other potentially dangerous branches near electric lines: "This is no bueno. "

To see his home and those of his neighbors still standing, Rupert said, means that they were "in the right place at the right time. We were awful lucky.

"But, I'm going to say it again: This was all totally preventable. This should have never, ever happened."

More information

The Dark Hole fire, another Yosemite blaze, had burned 647 acres and was 5% contained by Tuesday evening. The fire, begun by a lightning strike July 16, is burning near Yosemite Creek Campground off Tioga Road, the Highway 120 connector over the Sierra Nevada. Thirty-one firefighters were battling this high-country fire on Tuesday.

Big Oak Flat Road (Highway 120) remains closed from the Crane Flat gas station to its juncture with Highway 140. There was no estimated opening for the road on Tuesday.

Yosemite Valley is accessible via Highways 140 and 41. Highway 120 remains open from the east side of the Sierra, along Tioga Road, through the town of Groveland and beyond.

Three Yosemite campsites -- Crane Flat, Yosemite Creek and Bridalveil Creek (used for firefighter stationing) -- remain closed.

Because of the fires, the annual Yosemite Valley apple picking, scheduled for today, has been postponed. The picking is part of a program to reduce the number of encounters between people and black bears by removing non- native food sources.

People interested in assisting families who lost their homes in Foresta due to the El Portal fire can donate online at www.gofundme.com/c860f0" target="_blank"__gt__http:// and www.gofundme.com/ kim-laizer

 

Staff writer Katie Elwood contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, cgeorge@fresnobee.com or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.

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