On Friday, February 6 at 2:07 p.m., fire broke out on a ranch on Lower Rock Creek Road, south of Paradise. Little did anyone imagine that fire would grow within the span of hours to devastating proportions, claiming 40 residences and outbuildings in the communities of Paradise and Swall Meadows.
According to CalFire Public Information Officer Bennet Milloy, “The initial fire reports were of 3-5 acres with a critical rate of spread.”
The fire grew to 100 acres within the first hour.
“We had a low-pressure zone moving in during that time,” Milloy noted, which brought with it “unusual” winds that shifted erratically, greatly exacerbating the fire. Milloy reported sustained winds of 50 miles per hour, with gusts up to 75, even 100 miles per hour.
Residents of both communities were ordered to evacuate shortly AFTER 3 p.m., and Mono County opened a shelter and local assistance center at the Crowley Lake Community Center.
“My understanding is, the fire was pushing out to the east, but when the winds started, it shifted really hard to the north,” Milloy said. “It aligned to the path of those homes.”
The fire grew to 500 acres. Three hours later, it had grown from 500 to 5,000.
Over the night of Feb. 6, into the morning of Feb. 7, the Round Fire burned from 5,000-7,000 acres. With it went 40 residences and outbuildings, 39 in Swall Meadows and 1 in Paradise.
Mono County Sheriff Ingrid Braun said in an address to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that “Some residents of Swall Meadows initially declined to leave, which was their choice, and frightening for us, because the fire quickly roared up the Rock Creek drainage and into Swall Meadows at an amazingly rapid pace, fueled by the wind. We came back into Swall Meadows and said ‘Get out now,’ but we weren’t sure if everyone got out; thankfully, everyone did.
“The fire came into Swall Meadows, and whipped by the wind, picked off homes … That took place about 8 p.m. at night.”
Undersheriff Mike Moriarty described the fire as “moving at an incredible pace … the fire hopscotched. There are places where it leapt 100 yards.”
Then the winds dropped down, and around 2 a.m. on Feb. 7 a cold front brought in rain “measurable enough to impede the forward progress of the fire,” Milloy said. “That was when fire crews were able to make significant gains controlling the fire.”
CalFire, Paradise, Wheeler Crest, Bishop, Long Valley and Kern County Fire Department, the U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management all responded to the fire (for more on the experience of firefighters during the fire, see Evans’ story on p. 12 ).
As of 6 p.m. on Feb. 6, 50 personnel, 13 fire engines, and 2 bulldozers were fighting the Round Fire.
At the fire’s peak, more than 500 personnel, 20 hand crews, 35 engines, four bulldozers, 2 water tenders, and a helicopter were engaged in firefighting efforts.
The fire, which was 30 percent contained by 7 a.m. on Feb. 7, was 65 percent contained by 7 a.m on Sunday, Feb. 8, and personnel and equipment began leaving the area on Monday, Feb. 9. By then, the fire was 95 percent contained.
Remarkably, no residents reported injuries. The four reported injuries, sustained by firefighting personnel, were minor, including smoke inhalation, a rolled ankle, and a “slip and fall.”
“I’m horrified at the homes that were lost, and thankful that no lives were lost,” said Sheriff Braun. “We are very fortunate that the damage is property and not lives.”
As of Tuesday, Feb. 10, Mono County Assessor Barry Beck said the total assessed value of property lost was $8.8 million.
Residents were allowed back into both communities Monday afternoon, where many had a chance to confirm for the first time the damage to their property. One resident described seeing the lost houses as similar to “looking into a campfire in the morning.”
Dana and Eric Ellis were both at work in Mammoth when the evacuation order was issued and never had the chance to return home. Neighbors were able to get their dog. “Through Friday night, we had no idea what was happening. We were just watching the orange glow from Sunny Slopes,” Dana Ellis said. “It looked like everything would be gone.”
The next morning, Ellis heard that her house was lost when she went up to Crowley, stopping at the General Store, where she saw a fire truck. “When I asked what it was like in Swall, they just kinda hung their heads,” she said. “That was our first inclination that we were screwed.”
At the Crowley Lake Community Center, “News started trickling in from our friends and neighbors who were fighting the fire, and they were able to say things like, ‘Oh no, the Ellis’ house didn’t make it. We don’t know about this one.’ We were hearing by word of mouth,” Ellis said. Eventually the responding fire departments released a list of destroyed and damaged houses, and Ellis saw her house on the list.
“Later, they said there are no damaged houses, it’s either destroyed or it’s standing,” she said. “There’s really not much in between.”
Around 4:45 p.m. on Monday, Ellis was escorted back to her home.
The Ellis’ house (photo on page 16)was a straw bale house, as was their shed, which remains standing, bikes inside. “What’s still at our house is the metal frame of the dishwasher and the metal frame of the washing machine. All of the stucco walls are still leaning, but all of the straw bales burned out from inside of them,” she said. “The beam that held up our whole roof across the living room is now charred along the floor of the house.”
Many of the residents contacted by The Sheet addressed the lack of rhyme or reason to which homes disappeared in the fire, and which the fire left standing. “Those who have their houses feel really bad for those of us who don’t. But I’m stoked for those who were unscathed,” Ellis said.
Janet Hatfield, who stayed several hours after the evacuation mandate, described watching the fire approach her home. She and husband Brian Hatfield heard the sirens in the early afternoon, “But sirens go off for all kinds of reasons,” she said.
Then, “We saw the fire down in Round Valley. Not even an hour later, it was clear that this thing was not a typical winter fire … We made some calls to neighbors to irrigate, to do whatever they could do.”
The Hatfields, who both have experience firefighting, dug out and plumbed their summer irrigation system and began irrigating, knowing they would soon lose power. They removed firewood from their deck, helped evacuate the neighbors’ animals (see Lunch’s column on page two) and their own animals (eight chickens), and gathered their belongings.
“The fire was behaving in a way where if you didn’t have significant water resources, you wouldn’t have a prayer,” Hatfield said. “Even if you did have significant water resources you still might not have had a prayer.”
Although the Hatfields stayed beyond the evacuation deadline, they decided they wouldn’t try to weather it. “Nothing is really worth your life,” Hatfield said. “I took a picture out of the living room window right before we left … It’s just black and orange.”
The Hatfields’ home was one of several on the block that escaped the fire. 10 others, however, are gone.
“I’m not sure if any of us that stayed later saved our houses, I think it was just where the wind blew,” she said. “My neighbor Dennis [Oakeshott] did everything he could; he stayed as long as we did, if not longer. But the brush was so dry, and the wind was so powerful, I don’t think there’s a lot anyone could have done.” The Oakeshotts’house didn’t survive the fire.
When the evacuation restrictions lifted on Monday, Hatfield said many friends and neighbors returned simply to look, and to start processing. “It’s one thing when someone in the neighborhood loses a house, but when it’s 40 houses … It’s going to be different here for a long time.”
Lee Ann Wood, a resident of Lower Swall, agreed that her return to the area was surreal. “It’s very, very sad driving into Swall right now,” she said. Lee Ann and husband Chip were out of town when the fire began; neighbors called to alert them of the fire. Their home survived, although the fire came within 15 feet of it, Wood said.
She also reported seeing a hive of activity upon her return, including representatives of Southern California Edison (SCE) and Verizon at work on damaged power and telecommunication lines.
Ellis added that she could see SCE workers “physically threading the power lines.”
Power came back to Paradise around 9 p.m. on Monday, but Wood said that Lower Swall was still without power until about 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday night.
According to CalFire’s Bennet Milloy, first reports of fire and of power loss to Paradise and Swall Meadows came in almost simultaneously. Wireless service soon followed.
Verizon Public Relations Officer Jarryd Gonzales said that the Round Fire burned between 50-100 power and telephone poles, and damaged more than 40,000 feet of fiber-optic and copper cables between Rovana and Swall Meadows.
Local field teams “literally worked around the clock” to install temporary microwave service, Gonzales said. Longer-term solutions “could have taken several days to weeks to accomplish,” he added. Instead, Verizon partnered with Digital 395 contractor Praxis Fiber, which provided Verizon with access to its fiber cable and hastened the restoration of services.
Some wireless and landline services were restored to Mammoth, Lee Vining, Crowley Lake, Bridgeport, Crestview, June Mountain, and US-395 corridor north of Bishop as early as Saturday, Feb. 7. The remainder was restored around 6 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 9.
Two neighborhoods in Paradise and Swall Meadows remain out of service because communication cables were destroyed and fiber cables severely damaged by the fire, Gonzales said.
“We have a local Verizon team going door to door, offering mobile phones that allow texting, national and international calls,” he said. But service won’t be up again until communication cables are rebuilt, and fiber optic cables repaired, which may take up to four weeks.
As of this week, the cause of the Round Fire is still under investigation. Bennet Milloy said he could not provide a timeframe for that investigation.
Considering the high winds at the time of the fire, which preceded a subtropical storm, many residents have speculated that downed power lines may be to blame.
Unfortunately, as many residents also noted, precipitation from the storm arrived too late to quench the flames.
But help of a different kind may be forthcoming: on Tuesday, Feb. 10, the Mono County Board ratified Sheriff Braun’s Feb. 6 declaration of a State of Emergency. The Board will continue to review the state of emergency at their weekly meetings, until either they or Sheriff Braun determines that the emergency has concluded.
As part of the proclamation, the Board requested California Disaster Assistance Act (CDAA) and other recovery assistance from the State. Sean Smith, Recovery Programs Specialist from the California Office of Emergency Services out of Sacramento, is in Mono County assisting the recovery efforts, and said Mono County will need assistance with resources and finances. According to Smith, CDAA will reimburse Mono County 75 percent of the response and permanent work recovery costs, and the request for additional recovery assistance will open up “several different avenues for assistance.”
“We want the people in Swall and Paradise to know that Mono County is there for them and we will be a presence, and we want them to feel comfortable that they are safe and looked after,” said Sheriff Braun.
Indeed, Paradise and Swall Meadows residents have seen a tremendous outpouring of support from Mono and Inyo County agencies and individuals. Over the weekend and into this week, the Mono County Department of Social Services and Behavioral Health and Public Health were at the Crowley Lake Community Center to aid evacuated residents with information, medical concerns, and emotional support, while serving food and hot drinks.
Kathy Peterson, Director of Mono County Social Services, said the shelter will remain open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. long as people need us, we’ll be open,” she said.
Meanwhile, mobile units from the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army are currently parked at the Wheeler Crest Fire Station, providing meals, hot drinks, and support for residents, first responders, and SCE and Verizon workers.
Editor’s note: Fine grilled cheeses
According to Peterson, the Salvation Army reported an “overwhelming amount of donations to the Tri-County Fair Grounds,” where it has set up a donation center. “They have a virtual department store set up for people affected by the fire to go and select things that they need.”
“It’s astounding. I did not cry when we lost our house. I didn’t start crying until I walked into the fairgrounds and saw what had been given overnight,” Ellis said. “If someone doesn’t know what they need right away when you ask, just keep asking. Or if you know an individual, just think of who they are and what might make them smile.”
Instead of hard goods, the Salvation Army is now asking for gift card donations for those affected by the fire and cash donations to keep the mobile units running.
Finally, there are the many private donations of food, clothes, shelter, and funds made during and after the fire, including almost $61,000 raised by Amy King’s gofundme Round Fire Relief campaign (for more, see Vane’s story at left).
With the support of both Counties; of neighbors, friends, family, even strangers, residents of Paradise and Swall Meadows now face the challenge of sorting through and clearing out what the fire left behind, and beginning to rebuild. Ellis said that currently they plan on rebuilding in Swall if possible, a sentiment shared by other residents she’s talked with.
“It’s still really hard to drive up the road, and you’re just getting sucker-punched every time you turn the corner and another house is gone,” Janet Hatfield said. But even with the devastation, Swall Meadows is showing some small signs of regeneration. “There are deer running around here, and that’s great to see,” she said. “The vegetation will regenerate. But the people who lost those things that are irreplaceable to them … that’s really tough to see.”
UPDATE 2-17-15: Jarryd Gonzales of Verizon wrote to the Sheet last week with the following words regarding power in Paradise: “I just learned that we have sent additional crew of workers from another part of the state to help with the restoration effort. The work is paying off, and it looks as if Paradise will be restored as early as the end of next week.”