Crews allow first frontline look at stubborn wildfires

Crews allow first frontline look at stubborn wildfires »Play Video

LAKE ISABELLA, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Fire crews are still worried about the weather, but a small community of remote homes and cabins has survived the Clear Fire. It's one of two stubborn blazes south of Lake Isabella that have burned wild land since last weekend.

Firefighters are still keeping an eye on the chance of thunderstorms next weekend.

It was lighting that touched off both the Clear Fire and the Heald Fire, and the two are now considered the Piute Complex. On Thursday morning, state fire officials reported nearly 1,800 acres had burned, and the blazes were considered 50 percent contained.

The hot and fast fire threatened the Valley View community, but the flames never damaged the homes -- thanks to firefighting and fire prevention.

"I'm the furthest one down toward the Clear Creek Fire," Hayward Mendenhall told Eyewitness News. He has a beloved cabin in Valley View, and he finally got a look at it on Wednesday.

"It got saved without even bombarding it with retardant, because we have two and a half years of fire reduction (work)," Mendenhall said. That's efforts like clearing brush and trimming up branches. And the work's been done by relatives, friends, neighbors and local fire crews.

It's paid off.

"The only thing that burned was my split-rail fence," Mendenhall said. The oldest cabin in the group was built in 1852, Mendenhall said. And he added that all the structures are fine.

While he got a good look on Wednesday, Mendenhall couldn't get through on Saddle Springs Road by Thursday. Fire crews shut down the road when they discovered an abandoned mine shaft running under it that they worried could be weakened by the heavy fire-fighting equipment.

But, up the road in the blackened area, Mendenhall shook his head at the conditions.

"I'm devastated," he said. "Looks like the moon. It's sickening."

A couple helicopters buzzed overhead. One was spotting, looking for hot spots. The other was bringing in supplies for hand crews working on the fire lines.

"A few hundred of them at a time are actually spending days at a time on the fires," incident team spokesman Royjinder Singh explained. "So what our helicopters have been doing is, in the morning supplying them with food, water and equipment that they need to get the job done."

Singh said the fire area is remote and hard to get in and out of. That's why crews have been left on the lines. There is a big fire camp at the "Camp 9" campground on the other side of Lake Isabella. He said as many as 400 firefighters would get to come in to camp Thursday night.

The big fires have been fought by crews pulled in from across the state, and even as far away as Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Singh said. More than 1,000 personnel are assigned to the Piute Complex.

But, some equipment is being sent to other fires. Singh said fixed-wing aircraft have been redeployed, though they still have five helicopters assigned to the incident.

Mendenhall has nothing but praise for the firefighting effort.

"I can't say enough for these guys," he said. "They're like mountain goats going up and down the hills."

And the work's not done. "We have the potential for embers to be picked up by the wind and pushed into areas that are unburned," Singh said. "So we still have a lot of fire crews on the ground."

The two fires started last Saturday at about noon, and this coming weekend there's a chance of thunderstorms. The blazes have been tough to fight and get the upper hand on.

"It's still a little stubborn," Singh admitted. "We're still concerned about the heat that's coming into the area, the wind, and maintaining the fire lines."