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Bass Lake Residents On Edge After Courtney Fire

Sep 16, 2014

Cal Fire officials appear to be gaining the upper hand on the Courtney Fire that destroyed over 30 homes near Bass Lake in the mountains of Madera County. The blaze has burned over 300 acres and is now 90 percent contained. FM89’s Diana Aguilera reports.

Hundreds of people remain in evacuation after the Courtney Fire tore through houses and buildings.

As fire crews continue to make progress, some residents are returning to their homes. But there are others who never left.

"All you saw right there was a wall of flames," says resident Kent Tracy. "It was one of those things you hear about that the fire was so hot that the trees were exploding. Well they literally were."

Tracy has lived in the Bass Lake community for more than 25 years. The fire which started Sunday afternoon came dangerously close to his home.

Kent Tracy walks through his neighborhood seeing the remains of the Courtney Fire.
Credit Diana Aguilera / Valley Public Radio

"Seeing it firsthand it’s surreal might be getting over used but it still applies," he says. "There just no words to describe the velocity of it."

Tracy watched the fire pass his house and head toward a different path. Luckily, his home survived. But others weren't so lucky. On Monday, he witnessed the devastation left behind.

"I just walked through a neighborhood that literally every single house on both sides of the street were burned out and it made me almost noxious," Tracy says.

The Courtney Fire started shortly after 1:30 p.m. on Sunday near Courtney Lane and Seven Hills Road in Oakhurst before spreading to Bass Lake. So far, the blaze has destroyed more than 60 structures while threatening hundreds more.

But it wasn’t just homes. Leslie Cox is the owner of the Forks Resort located on the shore of the lake. She says she’s never seen a fire burn so close to her business.

"I literally didn't even have a toothbrush with us when we drove away."

"It was within 200 yards when it spread down to the lake," Cox says. "We're about a quarter to an eight of a mile from Pine Float picnic area and that’s where they stopped it."

At that point, everyone had been evacuated from the resort.

The Courtney Fire burns to the shore of Bass Lake on Sunday September 14.
Credit Don L. Weaver / Valley Public Radio

"We didn’t pack anything," she says. "We were so busy making sure customers were safe and our employees got out of here and the store was secure that my husband and I literally didn’t even have a toothbrush with us when we drove away."

Now, Cox says they’re cleaning up and trying to get things ready. The resort plans to open back up when the roads are cleared.

"We were able to get in," she says. "The power had been turned off for about 12 hours so we had quite a mess in the freezers, in the walk-ins, in the refrigerators. We ended up throwing away literally dozens of trash bags full of food and ice cream and garbage.”

This has been a rough month for the Bass Lake community. Less than a month ago, residents had a close call with the Junction Fire. Frank Bigelow is the fire chief for Cal Fire.

"This is the second major fire that we’ve had in a couple of weeks," Bigelow says. "We had the Junction Fire a couple weeks ago. Unfortunately the fire destroyed homes in that incident as well. This is a huge blow to this community and it’s really sad to see."

The Courtney Fire destroyed homes and buildings while others remained intact.
Credit Diana Aguilera / Valley Public Radio

Bigelow says the aftermath of the Courtney Fire left some houses burned to ashes while others endured the heat.

"In some cases we had one home that was standing, it took one home and then the very next one on the other side was still standing," he says.

So, why does that happen?  The answer: it depends on the construction of the home.

"Just behind us there’s one home that’s cinder block construction so it’s not wood frame so it’s not as readily available to burn as the house that was next to it," Bigelow says.

Cal Fire officials say the combination of California’s drought, strong winds and hot temperatures contributed to the rapid spread of the blaze.

"People are just weary. When will it be done?"
Two burned chairs is all that remains of a home near Road 426 and Cedar Drive.
Credit Diana Aguilera / Valley Public Radio

Many residents are still not allowed to return to their homes. As of Monday afternoon, Cherri Mulkey was still not able to drive to her house.

While walking outside the evacuation center in Oakhurst on Monday, Mulkey recalls her experience during the Junction Fire.

"I remember the first time we were evacuated," Mulkey says. "I was by myself with my seven year old daughter and I was like OK what do I take? What do I do? And it was like of those things that I thought I would take pictures, it didn’t matter."

Mulkey says despite the fact that it’s a close, tight-knit community people are on edge.

"People are just weary. When will it be done?" Mulkey says. "Because it’s always you’re a little bit on edge like each time it might get closer to your home or it’s a different area here, there and people are just weary, they’re just tired."

Cal Fire officials say the cause of the fire is still under investigation.