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Fire destroys 19 homes in Big Pine

March 21, 2011

An ariel view of Big Pine (l) Saturday shows the path of the Center Fire and damage to various homes throughout the community. Photo courtesy Kiana Wyatt. Solemn residents and firefighters gather next to what was once a home (r), now reduced to smoldering ash and a lone chimney. The county has declared a State of Emergency and if approved, money and resources will follow to help the victims and the community. Photo by Mike Bodine

While many residents were able to return to their homes in Big Pine Saturday morning, the homecoming was bittersweet as some found they had no homes to return to, their residences and worldly possessions destroyed during the night by the 800-acre Center Fire.
A total of 19 homes were destroyed in the fire, which broke out at about 3:30 p.m. Friday near the Bernasconi Center west of town. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Preliminary estimates put the cost of damages from the fire at $4.5 million.
A number of fundraisers and relief efforts have been established to assist those rendered homeless by the blaze or otherwise impacted by the fire (see accompanying story on pg. 1).
Due to high winds, the fire spread rapidly, driven north-east into Big Pine. Local law enforcement officers from the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department and California Highway Patrol began the first of a series of mandatory evacuations at about 5 p.m.
Sheriff Bill Lutze said that the execution of evacuation orders went smoothly, considering the speed of the blaze and danger to homes.
“I thought all and all the evacuations went well, everyone was cooperative and Health and Human Services did a great job of opening evacuation centers,” Lutze said.
Displaced residents were sent to the Big Pine High School Auditorium, Eastern Sierra Tri-County Fairgrounds in Bishop or Lone Pine High School.
The mandatory evacuation order was lifted at about midnight Friday, allowing most residents to return to their homes.
During the evacuation and throughout much of the night, U.S. 395 was closed to traffic from Bishop to Independence. Many residents who were evacuated were required to travel to Independence for shelter as the fire threatened to jump the highway.
At the fire’s peek, more than 250 firefighters from across the state, including volunteer firefighters from local communities from Lone Pine to Mammoth.
The blaze spread quickly, moving from Bernasconi northeast, hitting first the westernmost areas of town including the Glacier View Mobile Home Park and the area near Rossi Road.
Big Pine resident Jarrett Coons, who lives in the Glacier View Mobile Home Park, said he was fishing on the canal around 4 p.m. when he noticed the fire and began to see ash blowing into town. When he returned home he received the mandatory evacuation order from local sheriff’s deputies.
“Everybody got out – the sheriff’s did a great job considering how fast everything happened,” he said, “but we didn’t have time to really get anything out of the house.”
Coons said volunteer firefighters remained at the park to protect homes, despite the fire’s progression, and managed to save about half of the dwellings there.
Coons was able to return to Big Pine at about 7 a.m. Saturday, and was relieved to see that his was one of the homes in the park that was spared.
“We were relieved that our house is still here, the guys did an awesome job saving what they could, but we have a lot of friends in the park who lost everything. There were parts of homes that were just vaporized,” Coons said.
In addition to the number of trailers burned at Glacier View, portions of the 100-plus-year-old Rossi homestead sustained major and/or complete damage, however the extent could not be confirmed. At least one home was completely lost.
From the trailer park, spot fires hit east of Baker Creek Campground, burning livestock fields near County Road and School Street and prompting the evacuation of dozens of horses from the Big Pine Saddle Club and approximately 15 cats and dogs from the Inyo County Animal Shelter on County Road.
Inyo County Animal Shelter Manager Julie Sutton said county animal control staff evacuated the shelter at about 4:30 p.m. Friday, taking the animals to Bishop Veterinary Hospital.
No animals were inured during the fire, and the shelter was not damaged.
The animals were returned Sunday afternoon.
At the Big Pine Saddle Club, residents scrambled to load up their horses and transport them to the Tri-County Fairgrounds in Bishop, where free stables were provided and Dr. Ken and Nancy Gilliland and Peter Stickles of Zack Ranch provided hay to the refugee equines.
Also, Lee Roeser of Independence made his way to Big Pine early Friday evening with a large stock trailer to help get horses from the fields near School Street to safety as the blaze made its way there.
CalFire Public Information Officer Julie Hutchinsen said firefighters were able to get a handle on the fire by 9 p.m. Friday evening because the high winds began to die down. Later in the evening, firefighters got another break in the form of light precipitation that helped quell the blaze.
Saturday saw more relief for local volunteers, many of whom had been on the fire all night.
“Everyone worked so well together, the local fire agencies really deserve some recognition. The first responders had to wait four hours for back-up from down south, and they just did a phenomenal job,” Hutchinsen said.
The fire was almost fully contained Saturday evening, and any hot spots that may have persisted throughout the weekend were completely exitinguished Sunday, when Big Pine experienced heavy rain.
Over the course of the weekend many rumors about the blaze circulated through communities of the Eastern Sierra, claiming that Bernasconi, Palisade Glacier High School, the Big Pine Animal Shelter, Big Pine Saddle Club and the Roosevelt Tree at the intersection of U.S. 395 and State Route 168 had been destroyed. Despite close calls at each of those locations, none were claimed by the fire.
Other rumors have persisted claiming that several local youth were arrested in connection to the blaze. Sheriff Lutze said that no arrests have been made, adding that CalFire investigators continue to look into the source of the blaze.
No deaths have been reported in relation to the fire, but Hutchinsen said one Inyo County sheriff’s deputy was injured by flying debris Friday night. That injury, she added, was caused by wind, not fire.
Sheriff Lutze said the officer suffered injuries to his chest after a sign struck him as he helped with the evacuation effort. He was treated for his injuries and will be off work for the next few days, but is expected to make a full recovery.
County leaders will hold a special meeting today at 3 p.m. at the One Stop Center on Main Street in Bishop to ratify a Declaration of a State of Emergency due to the fire and hear a request from Inyo County Integrated Waste to waive all gate and disposal fees associated with debris from the fire.

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