The irrepressible Dennis Oakeshott.
As of Thursday morning, Mono County still waits for Governor Brown’s emergency declaration following the Round Fire, which burned 7,000 acres and 40 structures in Paradise and Swall Meadows on Feb. 6. This declaration will allow CalRecycle to aid Swall homeowners in the debris removal process and clean site certification rather than people working individually with their insurance agencies to do the same thing.
But Swall resident Dennis Oakeshott, like many others, isn’t sitting idly waiting for the State to make its decision. Oakeshott, a Mono County resident for 43 years, bought the property in Swall Meadows in 1990, taking nearly ten years to build the workshop with a studio apartment, woodshed, and main house himself. All three structures were lost in the fire.
Although Oakeshott admitted frustration in light of the hazardous waste bureaucracy, he said “I’m lucky because I have a lot of friends who own machinery and who are willing to help… my way of handling the shock was to just get to work.”
The first day residents were allowed back into the neighborhood, Oakeshott made a game plan with contractor friend Frank Stuart. Using Stuart’s heavy machinery, first Oakeshott and friends disassembled and flattened the metal roofing that was “twisted wreckage screwed together” covering the entire house site. They did the same with the appliances, filling an entire dumpster with recyclable metal.
Another dumpster was used for wood waste, as someone went around with the chainsaw cutting down “everything that wasn’t going to come back,” Oakeshott said. The State Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board standards don’t allow for residents to dispose of mixed fire debris at either the Benton Crossing Landfill or the Transfer Station on Lower Rock Creek Road, although these sites can accept metal, appliances, wood waste and aggregate if separated out for recycling.
Almost three weeks after the incident, the only debris left on Oakeshott’s property— roughly two truck loads— is deemed hazardous. When the Sheet visited his property Wednesday, two small Caterpillars were digging up the foundation of the woodshed and workshop, moving the concrete into neat piles.
“I’m hoping to make it easier when someone does show up to take it,” Oakeshott said. “I’m just trying to line it all up and not wait for all this other stuff to happen first.”
Oakeshott was at home eating lunch when the fire alarm at the Wheeler Crest Station went off on Feb. 6. After talking to friends down in Paradise who were without water due to the electricity outage, he drove down the road to deliver a five gallon jug. “By that time there was a dome of smoke coming up over Paradise and the Highway Patrol was knocking on doors and getting
everybody out,” he said.
He went back to his house, packing up “the essentials we always talked about grabbing” and using a chainsaw to cut trees around the house. He stayed beyond the mandatory evacuation to try and get his property ready for the fire to pass by. “I’m pretty savvy, I know what’s going on and I’m keeping my eye on the fire,” he told law enforcement officers.
At one point, Oakeshott looked out and saw “the wind take the fire right up the gully. It went as fast as you would zip up your pants,” he said. By about 8:30 p.m. the wind shifted about 90 degrees and “it started to blow into this community.”
As Oakeshott climbed into his truck to leave, a law enforcement vehicle sped past and without even slowing down announced over the bullhorn “With a panic in his voice, ‘it’s time to leave now!” Oakeshott remembered. He stopped by the Wheeler Crest Fire Station on his way out to tell them not to come looking for him. He told the same thing to two Sheriff Deputies, who took down his name, at the top of Swall Meadows Road. There he watched as a house that was untouched three minutes prior explode in flames. “The entire area was spontaneously combusting as far as I could tell,” he said. What Oakeshott remembers next resembled a tornado forming out of the clouds.
“I looked up in the sky about 5 feet off the ground this cloud started turning in a circular fashion. It started turning faster and faster. I’ll never forget the sound – it went from a low moan to a high screeching noise … It descended out of the sky towards the earth and you could see bright chunks of debris. As it stretched closer to the ground it got brighter and wider and hotter and we could start feeling the heat blasts three blocks away. I liken it to a bullwhip that came out of the bottom and everywhere it touched it painted fire, exploding instantly to 20- or 30-foot flames. At this point the fire was no longer creeping it was just exploding.”
At that point, Oakeshott drove away from Swall assuming the entire neighborhood was gone. When Oakeshott made it back to his property several days after the fire, he realized his house was probably ground zero for the fire tornado he witnessed, as the trees show evidence. “It’s almost like a hairstylist came in and did a really bad hairdo. All the needles and branches were spun and held in suspended animation in the shape of the wind.”
Oakeshott manages his “two and a half acres of brush and trouble” micro-farming and raising 40 laying hens, none of which survived the fire. But he is already planning on rebuilding the chicken coop and doing landscaping improvements as soon as possible, while he waits for the State to act.
And he plans on rebuilding his house “fixing every mistake I ever made,” he said laughing. Like the first time around, he will hire skilled friends to help with the framing and sub-contractors for the electrical, plumbing, and insulation work. “Maybe we’ll even use painters this time,” he said, although he does plan on building his own cabinets and doors again, using local materials.
While Oakeshott is doing the best he can with the limitations placed on cleanup by the State, he praised Mono County: “They have bent over backwards to help us.”
Mono County CAO Jim Leddy said he is in touch with the California Office of Emergency Services (OES) daily. But at this point “We’re waiting for others to give information and make decisions,” he said. “We’re trying to adapt to that as best as possible.”
Leddy encouraged residents to attend the special Board of Supervisors Meeting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday March 3 at the Crowley Lake Community Center for more information about the cleanup and rebuilding process.
In other fire news, a committee of Swall, Paradise and Sunny Slopes residents have formed a committee responsible for administering the Round Fire Relief Fund, which has raised more than $76,000 through the Go Fund Me site since started by Amy King Feb. 7. According to chairperson Lee Ann Wood, the committee of seven members will meet on a regular basis for as long as necessary. The Mammoth Lakes Chamber of Commerce has offered the use of its 501c3 non-profit Mammoth Community Foundation as a pass-through account for donations and disbursement of relief funds. Wood also said the committee is willing to accept and disburse any other funds brought in by the many fundraisers around the Eastern Sierra for those affected by the Round Fire.