• Lessons from the 2015 Willow Fire

    by  • July 27, 2016 • Sierra Foothills, Weather

    The Week that Was: My story of the 2015 Willow Fire

    I heard the news online and called my husband, Tractor Man to come look. We could see a column of smoke at the far end of the valley. This would become the 5,700-acre 2015 Willow Fire, which began at 2:30 pm on July 25, 2015 in the Sierra National Forest.

    (To set our personal scene, we had just returned from a camping/fishing trip, cut short by my husband, Tractor Man’s chronic heart condition.  Friday, July 24th, we came home to rest for a week before continuing the fishing trip.)

    In the first couple days of the fire, our attention was taken by the cause of the fire.  Since there was a 911 call, the media informed us that it was started by a juvenile, bored with the family hike, who’d gone back to the car and with a lighter found there, occupied himself by igniting pine branches.

    See detailed map of the fire area.  2015 Willow Fire

    July 25 Sat

    2015-7-25 3pm Smoke view from goat shed

    2015-7-25 3pm  Smoke billows just one hour after the fire starts. View from the goat shed hill, the highest midpoint of our 7 acre property.

    Young and dumb, we thought, and a darn shame, but since all three fires in Oakhurst the year before were put out in one day, we felt sure this one would be, too.


    2015-7-25 5pm Arson set fire Malum Ridge Rd 274

    2015-7-25 5pm Arson set fire starts along  Malum Ridge Rd 274 and Central Camp Rd.

    We could see the fire from the north end of the patio and that was actually a comfort,…to ‘eye the enemy’ and I could check it whenever I wanted to reassure myself.  We could also drive up to the top of our street to a high point on Malum Ridge Rd (274) and see a wide view.

    Residents were lining Road 274 taking photos and video of the huge tower of smoke rising

    At times, fire personnel were parked here as well.


    2015-7-25 9pm Night view Impending doom

    2015-7-25 9pm Night view from the patio. Impending doom?

    The fire started near Central Camp Rd at the far north end of the 5 mile long Willow Canyon, in which we are situated halfway down. Willow Canyon lies in the shadow of 6000′ Peckinpah Ridge with Bass Lake at the north end and the town of North Fork near the south. The Old Mill Site  at the far south end was set up as the fire command post on the first day.

    We were only reassured when we got the phone call, a recorded message from the local MCAlert Emergency Warning System that we were now on ‘Pre-Evac” which meant we were to be prepared to leave in 15 minutes from the next call.  The system worked…yea!  Talking this over with Tractor Man, we decided that we’d easily be able to pack our albums and family papers into the motorhome with some extra clothes.  We’d be fine.

    July 26 Sun

    2015-7-26 7am Morning smoke

    2015-7-26 7am Morning smoke

    In the morning, the valley was filled with light smoke that hid the view of the fire.


    2015-7-26 2pm Water dropping heli

    2015-7-26 2pm Water dropping helicopter

    We began to hear the water dropping helicopters constantly, filling up from the nearby Bass Lake, very convenient to the fire. Trees killed by bark beetles would soon add to the fire intensity.  I was thrilled to be able get some great close shots of the fire fighting aircraft


    2015-7-26 2pm Fire line

    2015-7-26 2pm Fire line creeps closer, but still we felt little danger  View from north end of patio

    The billowing smoke from the hottest fire seems very far still. The fire fighters began to concentrate on laying down fire retardant on the faint smoke line shown above.  That’s as far as we felt the fire would go.

    July 27 Mon

    2015-7-27 1pm The battle begins in earnest

    2015-7-27 1pm The battle begins in earnest  ‘Let’s get this fire under control!’


    2015-7-27 3pm The fire looks tame after two days

    2015-7-27 3pm The fire looks tame after two days, but notice the puff of smoke at the far right of this photo above??

    We were disappointed to see the fire crossing the fire retardant line set down so solidly by the VLAT.  Trip after trip, dropping the thick pink goo seemed to stop or slow the fire, but now, it crept past.

    July 28 Tues

    2015-7-28 4pm Snag patch flares up

    2015-7-28 4pm Snag patch flares up

    Hotter temperatures and lower humidity in these last few days, along with winds gusting up to 10 mph, created the potential for extreme fire behavior. Temperatures neared 100 degrees.


    2015-7-28 4pm Water dropping helicopter

    2015-7-28 4pm Water dropping helicopter

    We checked several times a day and could still see the fire at all times, slowly creeping towards us so I was able to easily get closeup photos of the fire fighters.


    2015-7-28 5pm Planes try to hold the line

    2015-7-28 5pm Planes try to hold the line.

    It was very exciting to see these planes at work and we learned the difference between the CDF S-2T Turbine Tracker spotter plane and the huge VLAT, Very Large Air Tanker shown above.

    Drought and overwhelming bark beetle infestation had led to unheard-of tree death in Cascadel Woods and the surrounding Ponderosa Pines at 3,000-6,000 foot elevations.

    We attended the community meeting Tuesday night and were very impressed with the professionalism of the fire command. Residents of the Cascadel Woods community were worried that they were in the direct path of the fire and the Battalion Chief explained that there were two bulldozed firebreaks built between them and the fire.


    2015-7-28 8pm Smouldering Peckinpah Mountain from the goat shed south end

    2015-7-28 8pm Smouldering Peckinpah Mountain from the goat shed south end

    This evening, the fire seemed to reach the top of the mountain.  I was relieved to see it do this as I had thought that fire mostly went uphill.  The planes had laid down a solid line of retardant to slow the fire’s southward movement.


    2015-7-28 8pm Willow Fire (1191) Fire line

    2015-7-28 8pm  Telephoto from the patio of the fire line to the north of us and last plane of the night.


    July 29 Wed

    2015-7-29 1pm Smoke and fire reach top of highest mountain

    2015-7-29 1pm Smoke and fire reach top of highest mountain

    Wednesday dawned and about 1pm our day was sidelined by Tractor Man’s heart which became erratic for the second time in a week. That sent us packing to the Fresno VA Emergency Room.  These ER trips were upsetting but becoming routine having happened several times since April.  The fact that we would rather be safe-guarding our home today was moot. We bit the bullet and presented ourselves to get the 8 hour or over night treatment that would regulate his heartbeat.

    That evening I got the shock of my life.  I had driven home to feed our dog, leaving Tractor Man to stay overnight in the hospital as a precaution. As I approached North Fork on Rd 200, I saw the mountain lit up by fire, much more dramatic in the dark. The fire had quickly crossed the fire retardant line to the north and was racing, it seemed across the mountain bluffs.


    2015-7-29 9pm High line of flame

    2015-7-29 9pm High line of flame photographed from the lower patio


    2015-7-29 9pm Flames

    2015-7-29 9pm Flames captured from the lower patio directly across the valley from our house.

    The neighbors called and asked if they could come down and watch from our patio, now front and center to the fire. A couple from Cascadel Woods had taken refuge at the neighbors and they all wanted to see. Here was where we could see with the naked eye the dry dead Ponderosa pines killed by bark beetles flame up like torches.

    There was a party atmosphere as all of us were confident even at this time that the fire command had a solid plan and the fire was still traveling away from us, watching here from the patio in our lawn chairs.

    July 30 Thurs

    Most of the day was spent at the hospital, getting Tractor man back home and settled. That fact that the fiire was not yet under control or lessening would not be good for his anxiety level,…or mine.

    2015-7-30 8pm Fire runs by us and heads south

    2015-7-30 8pm Fire runs by us and heads south. Below the flame is the waterfall we see everyday.

    That evening the neighbors again came down to watch the fire and discuss where we thought the fire would go.  Now we could hear the fire fighters on the road at the bottom of the valley, Douglas Station Rd who were chainsawing and getting prepared in case a back fire was needed.  This was the first I heard of a back fire which I knew was a fire set in order to stop the forward movement of a forest fire.

    2015-7-30 9pm Haunting Nighttime line of flame

    2015-7-30 9pm Haunting nighttime line of flame made quite the spectacle at the top of Peckinpah Ridge


    July 31 Fri

    2015-7-31 8am A Sunrise over the mountain

    2015-7-31 8am A Sunrise over the mountain

    Each morning smoke filled the valley between us and the mountain. A man came down from the fire team and told us that they may be setting the backfire soon, starting at the road, visible from our place, at the bottom of the valley. We could still hear the constant sound of bulldozers, chain saws and falling trees from far below.


    2015-7-31 4pm Flames reach waterfall

    2015-7-31 4pm Flames reach waterfall, directly across from our lower patio.  The green trees at the bottom of this picture are on our place, a mere 1/2 mile away from the flames.

    I was dismayed to see the flames fall lower and lower, something I hadn’t thought would happen. Fire burns uphill, right? This is how falling sparks cause fire to spread I could see at this point. I wanted to know where were the planes dropping fire retardant.  Where were they?  It dawned on me that the fire command was allowing this fire to burn. Could that be possible?


    2015-7-31 4pm Water dropping heli

    2015-7-31 4pm Water dropping helicopter


    2015-7-31 4pm Flames and closeup water dropping bucket drop

    2015-7-31 4pm Flames and closeup of water bucket drop.  Good aim!


    2015-7-31 5pm Smokey mountain panorama

    2015-7-31 5pm Smokey mountain panorama, photo taken from the far south end of the property

    The fire seemed to slow this night, now reaching far to the south and nearing the community of Cascadel Woods just over the far right in this photo above.


    2015-7-31 8pm Evening smoke rising sunset

    2015-7-31 8pm Evening smoke rising at sunset. Photo from the goat shed hill, southern-most on our place


    Aug 1 Saturday

    Today signaled a change in my attitude and energy level.  I could see the fire coming farther and farther down the mountain towards us.  It was a really good view.  Too good.

    2015-8-1 3pm Directly across from our place

    2015-8-1 3pm Directly across from our place


    2015-8-1 3pm Incredibly, the fire passes by

    2015-8-1 3pm Incredibly, the fire passes by the waterfall level and reaches lower

    I thought to myself, ‘Here we are, watching this fire all week when now, it’s getting too close to feel comfortable doing so,…just watching.  I began loading our family valuables into the motorhome along with clothes and all our photo albums and irreplaceable items.  It felt panicky and exhausting.  I called the neighbor boy and had him help me load four pieces of 100 yr old furniture into our old pickup intending to drive it to a friend’s at Bass Lake.   It felt good to take action.


    2015-8-1 3pm Just before the back fire

    2015-8-1 3pm Just before the back fire

    Seeing my garden with the background of flame and smoke, shocked me and sent me into action.


    2015-8-1 3pm Flames hit some dry trees

    2015-8-1 3pm Flames hit some dry trees

    About 3pm this day, the fire fighters set the back fire at the bottom of our valley with explosive charges.  Boom!  Boom!  Boom, they went and it truly was terrifying to see the flames rise fifty feet in the air, seemingly right below where we stood.  I set my camera down somewhere and it lay forgotten. I was also extremely worried about Tractor Man’s heart,…would it hold up?


    2015-8-1 3pm The backfire is lit on the road below

    2015-8-1 3pm The backfire is lit on the road below

    We were ready to leave. Just as we were ready to drive the vehicles to the top of the road, the neighbors arrived with reassuring news.  The back fire was a good thing, they said, and would be soon extinguishing the fire completely.  They said they talked to the fire command at the top of the street and it would soon be all over.  Within an hour it was.  Amazing! We watched for about an hour and the smoke began to clear and blow to the east revealing the mountain again.

    2015-8-1 4pm Back fire leaves a charred slope

    2015-8-1 4pm Back fire leaves a charred slope

    I know I was in shock.  I barely remember anything anyone said to me after that, for hours.   One minute we’re rushing around about to leave our home to fire and the next, we’re coaxed into joining the neighbors for a BBQ dinner.  It was too much.  For a year I couldn’t look at the photos and just this month I thought of writing it out and getting it all down…for lessons learned.

    2015-8-2 2pm The mountain is grizzley and ashy in the aftermath

    2015-8-2 2pm The mountain is grizzly and ashy in the aftermath

    Lessons from the fire:

    You think you’re prepared. You’re not.

    Scan every piece of valuable paper, painting and object, take the computer and leave the rest.

    Take photos of your home in advance, because it can only become less organized now.

    Have a back-up plan. Our motorhome is ours, but still was exhausting to load up, leaving little room for us!

    Don’t count on getting the latest information. Find a good source of local info you can reach with your phone.

    Make a list of what to bring and have it, seriously, by the front door. Emergency Supply Kit

    Become familiar with a back way away from the forest into the city.

    Don’t expect to have all your wits about you during an emergency.

    I would not take as much as we planned to in this incident. Silly.

    Keep vehicles gassed up and equipped with flashlights, water, tools and extra supplies, especially in fire season.


    2016-4 April mountain slope

    2016 April mountain slope, one year later


    2016-2 February mountain slope in snow

    2016 February mountain slope in snow


    2017-7-25 mountain slope

    2017 July 25 mountain slope two years later

    Most of what was on this mounding slope was a stand of White Stickyleaf manzanita, Buckbrush, Cercocarpus betuloides, Mountain mahogany, Quercus agrifolia, live oak and Quercus kelloggii, Black oak Ponderosa Pine grows high about this 6000′ mountain……I’m glad to see this slope regenerating…


    I cannot have thought of all the lessons, so if you know of any safety measures useful during a forest fir evacuation, do comment.

    2015-7-27 1pm Thank you sign in the neighborhood


    Sue Langley, a passionate gardener and photographer lives and gardens with her husband and Corgi, Maggie on 7 acres just south of Yosemite, Zone 7 at 3000 feet. She also manages the Flea Market Gardening Facebook page and website.