‘Like Godzilla over my house’: Residents recount terrifying moments as Oak fire rages

The oak fire near Yosemite is the largest fire in California this year and has forced thousands to flee their homes.

Several mountain communities are threatened. The fire has destroyed seven buildings and is threatening thousands more, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

On Sunday, firefighters estimated 10 buildings had been destroyed, but teams investigating the wildfire damage downgraded that number on Monday.

The fire started near Midpines on Friday and by early Monday had grown to more than 16,700 acres with 10% containment.

This is what life is like on the path of fire, based on interviews with local residents:

“I feel like I was under LAX”

As Beth Pratt sat in her front yard on Sunday morning as ash rained down on her, she was thankful things weren’t worse.

Less than a mile from the Midpines evacuation zone, Pratt had packed her car Saturday, ready to leave.

“The fire exploded,” said Pratt, 53, who is the California regional director of the National Wildlife Federation. “It looked like Godzilla over my house.”

But then firefighting planes began arriving, releasing fire suppressants and containing the flames in their vicinity. Pratt cheered them on from the ground.

The planes didn’t stop coming.

“Here I am in the middle of nowhere outside of Yosemite,” she said. “But I feel like I’ve been under LAX for the past few days.”

In the 25 years that she has lived in Midpines, Pratt has had to evacuate three times due to wildfires.

But she said the oak fire was the scariest because it’s so big and fast-paced. She was without electricity in the muggy temperatures and fetched water for herself, her five dogs, two cats and a lizard.

Pratt plans to stay until there’s an evacuation order because leaving is stressful for her animals — but also because it’s difficult to come back once you’re gone.

“I’m still not over the hill,” Pratt said.

“The wind blows the fire away from me. But that means someone else is being asked to do it, which doesn’t make you feel good.”

“A Price You Pay to Have Paradise”

Aubrey Brown and his wife Lynda have been at a Red Cross center since Friday when they rushed from their home in the township of Lushmeadows.

Brown was working in his garage when he noticed the sky turning orange. When he came outside, he saw a huge plume of smoke surrounding their house.

The couple, both 70, moved to the area from the Bay Area a year and a half ago, drawn by a landscape that reminded them of their more rural youth.

They bought a 2 acre property with a custom home that features a glass wall overlooking the mountains. They understood they were buying in an area prone to fires.

“We bought with our eyes wide open,” said Lynda Brown. “There’s a price to pay to have paradise these days.”

Just last week, having recently completed a wildfire preparedness course, the Browns created evacuation kits containing all their important paperwork, memorabilia and medical prescriptions.

At the evacuation center, they have heard that their house is likely still standing and are now awaiting more information about their daughter’s property in nearby Bootjack.

“We can’t worry about what we don’t have control over,” said Lynda Brown. “We’re only going to focus on things that we can help with here.”

“I’ve been through this half my life, baby”

Keisha McGruder, manager of the Bootjack Market & Deli just off Highway 49, said the plumes of smoke rising from the raging oak fire were so thick they were blowing into her store.

About a quarter mile from the blaze, McGruder said it remains open despite the conditions to ensure people get food and supplies they need to either settle down or flee.

This group includes the crew of firefighters and emergency responders, for whom McGruder offers free coffee and soft drinks while they use their parking lot as a makeshift meeting place.

“We couldn’t even open the shop yesterday. We had closed roads up to Highway 49 South. … It was basically in our backyard,” said McGruder, who has lived in the area for more than three decades.

“It’s pretty devastating up here.”

While some homes have already burned down and evacuation orders are in effect for several communities, McGruder said several people stayed behind to try to protect their homes from the risk of spot fires caused by embers blowing out the main fire.

“Everyone has been evacuated from this street I am on. Some people have sneaked back in. Some people didn’t go,” she said.

Despite the fire’s rapid growth, McGruder sounded stunned when a customer entered the store and waved away the smoke.

“I’ve been through this half my life, baby,” she said.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-07-25/residents-recount-terrifying-moments-as-oak-fire-rages ‘Like Godzilla over my house’: Residents recount terrifying moments as Oak fire rages

Alley Einstein

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