2013-06-20 / Front Page

Those who fled blaze got varying welcomes

By Erik Skindrud

Sharon Wittkopf got more than she bargained for at a Father’s Day barbecue on Scott Road in Jerseydale.

At first, it was no cause for alarm—just a wisp of smoke through the trees.

“Then the phone started ringing,” Wittkopf recalled. “This is the price we pay for living in God’s country, apparently.”

There was a bigger price to pay later that evening, however. Sharon and husband Jim needed to find Jim’s parents, both 94, hotel accommodations.

Jim and Sharon booked the older couple into Mariposa’s Comfort Inn. The per-night rate turned out to be $124.

The rate seemed a bit steep for folks thrust out of their home due to a natural disaster, the Wittkopfs said.

A check around town showed a range of policies when it comes to disaster discounts in local lodging.

At Miner’s Inn, owner Marinder Singh was giving evacuees close to 50 percent off. The inn’s normal summer rate starts at $160 a night. Fire evacuees were charged about $80 a night, the owner said.

“I want to help (people) out,” Singh said.

Mariposa’s Best Western and Monarch motels were almost completely booked this week, owner Paul Patel said. On Monday morning, he had two open rooms at the Monarch. Patel was not planning on offering any fire discounts, he said.

Jim and Sharon Wittkopf booked themselves into Mariposa Lodge, where a “substantial” discount kept their bill under $80 a night, Sharon Wittkopf said.

At Miner’s Inn, staffer Cathy Bennett said at least one evacuee paid their bill using a Red Cross voucher.

By Sunday night, most remaining rooms in town were booked by firefighters who travelled from across the state to fight the blaze.

By Monday morning, the American Red Cross had set up its first Mariposa County evacuation center since 2008’s Telegraph Fire, Ellen Knapp, director of the group’s Fresno office, explained.

Red Cross volunteers handed out a limited number of motel vouchers to help folks displaced from their homes on Sunday evening—before a local shelter could be set up by volunteers.

The shelter at Mariposa Elementary School in town included an air-conditioned room set up to accommodate pets from evacuated homes.

In a computer lab lined with plastic sheeting, dogs and cats were watched over by Naomi Flam of the Central California Animal Disaster Team.

“We take care of the pets so people can take care of themselves,” she said.

Past experience has shown that offering care for animals is critical during disasters, Flam said. During Hurricane Katrina, for example, multiple people risked their lives to save pets, she said.

When pets are taken care of, people can relax. It also works the other way around, Flam said.

“The good thing about having pets here is the owners can come by and take them for walks,” she said. “It helps with the animals’ stress level. It helps keep the people calmer too.”

Pets, of course, weren’t the only animals affected by the fire.

John Helwig, another Scott Road resident, saw rescue workers spring into action to save his stable of mares.

Complicating matters, one of the horses was 12- months pregnant. Moving the mare would have been problematic. For the others, “We could have saddled ‘em up and ridden ‘em out,” he said.

Instead, volunteers Mariposa County Search and Rescue showed up with trailers to move the horses to the livestock evacuation center at the fairgrounds.

“They were up there to help us in about 15 minutes,” Helwig said. “They were there faster than I could have gotten an ambulance.”

Helwig and family found shelter with the Red Cross at the local elementary school.

“The kindness and generosity have been beyond words,” he said.

Denise Lagutaris was at the Red Cross shelter on Monday with family members from Mariposa Pines—including two dogs.

A twist of fate brought the 1994 Grizzly grad into the Carstens Fire’s path.

Now living in Newport Beach, Lagutaris was in town to celebrate Father’s Day with dad Dennis Lagutaris—a longtime volunteer with the Mariposa County Fire Department’s Company 29.

The volunteer response to the blaze has been astounding and heartwarming at the same time, she said.

“But it’s not surprising given this community,” Lagutaris said. “This county really pulls together

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