Edward Lopes stood in front of his Mount Bullion home Friday morning and patiently described what life is like for victims of the Detwiler fire near Mariposa right now.
“It’s like one of those movies,” Lopes said. “Nobody’s in town except one or two persons. There’s no electricity. Everything’s dark, you can’t find anything, especially people with bad eyesight.
“You have to draw water – if you’re lucky to have water – with a five-gallon bucket to get by. First, you lose all your food. Your freezer’s gone, and then you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do with that. It’s not comfortable, not at all comfortable. It’s going without, and you have to experience it so you know all the little things you take for granted everyday mean a lot.”
Lopes knows he is one of the lucky ones. The home he has lived in since 1989 survived unscathed while dozens of others were destroyed as the blaze exploded Sunday afternoon and rampaged through more than 74,000 acres of grassland and scrub brush.
“Just to see someone’s home, everything, all their belongings gone, it’s terrible,” Lopes said. “I have a friend that I can’t tell him that his house is burned. Everything he has is gone. He’s disabled.
“It’s going to be nearly impossible for him to relocate and get everything back together again, just to start living again in a home.”
By Friday, Cal Fire estimated that at least 58 homes had been destroyed and 11 more damaged. Another 60 other structures – sheds, garages and the like – also have burned, and the final tally likely will be higher once investigators are able to get in and survey the damage. By noon Friday, officials had lifted the mandatory evacuation order for the approximately 2,100 residents of Mariposa, but other areas still were under orders for residents to stay out as containment of the blaze was only 15 percent.
Lopes was taking no chances when the fire roared toward his neighborhood Tuesday night.
“Well, this is my home, and I’m making it to where I’m going to die here,” he said. “But I wasn’t going to die Tuesday. My truck was ready to go, and when the propane tanks started blowing up in town I did load up my dogs... And then I came back and I noticed the fire had worked its way over to where I felt safe to stay.”
Throughout the fire zone, residents described the unpredictable nature of a blaze that spared some homes and incinerated others.
The fire marched to within 40 feet of Sharla Wildt’s historic home, but her husband had been out on his tractor cutting a perimeter around the structure, which halted the flames and allowed him to put them out.
Wildt’s father-in-law brought the home from Bagby in the early 1960s, before the gold-mining community along the Merced River was inundated by a reservoir project.
“We couldn’t lose the house because it’s so old and it’s been in the family so long,” she said. “We wanted to protect it. This original house came from Bagby when Bagby was a town. His father brought it up in two pieces when they broke the dam and Bagby was no longer a town.”
Wildt’s home was saved, but the house where her daughter, son-in-law and two boys lived was destroyed by the flames.
“She hasn’t seen the house,” Wildt said. “I have. It was hard, very hard. It was a rental, but it was their first home and they lost everything.”
From rural neighborhood to neighborhood, residents talked of how they tried to help their neighbors, fed and watched over their livestock and placed their faith in the firefighters racing around the roadways and flying overhead.
Robert Darragh, an 84-year-old Navy veteran of the Korean War, described how he and his wife, Barbara, initially waited when a Mariposa sheriff’s deputy tried to convince them to leave their Bear Valley home Sunday night.
“We were approached on Sunday night to evacuate, and said ‘Evacuate what?’ ” Darragh said.
The deputy explained, “There’s a fire behind you,” he said.
“All it was to us was smoke coming over the hill, we didn’t see any fire,” Darragh said. “So we rejected to leave and they posted the front of the house saying that we were offered to leave and we didn’t. But the next day when we got up the fire was kind of cresting the mountain that’s right behind us. So that encouraged us to pack up a few things and get on the road.”
That began a four-day odyssey for the couple.
“It seems like every place we went was either booked up full or people were already starting to move out...,” he said. “We took a motel in Mariposa because they were still good, they didn’t have a problem, but within four hours when we went back to the motel to secure our room they couldn’t take us because they got an evacuation notice...
“Then we noticed that some of the stores were closing up and there was quite a crowd downtown going back and forth... Barbara asked one of the storekeepers if they were closing up for their own protection and they said no, they’ve shut the town down, we all have to get out of here.”
After four days, the couple decided it was safe to return, as they had heard some other neighbors had. Thursday afternoon, they still had no power and no phone. Cell phones don’t work in their area, so they were uncertain what was happening with the fires, although they could see helicopters continuing bombing runs nearby with water and retardant.
“Thank God we had the firemen here because they did a great job,” Darragh said. “We were gone by then, so we only know what we heard when we came back, but they had a water tender sitting by the house and put out the fire before it got out here. So, God sent his firemen, and we appreciate every one of them because they’ve come from everywhere to help us.”