2017-08-03 / Front Page

Detwiler: The road to recovery

Opinions differ concerning North County response

Greeley Hill resident John Kirby is shown discussing the Detwiler Fire at the Gold Country Bistro in Coulterville. 
Photo by Greg Little Greeley Hill resident John Kirby is shown discussing the Detwiler Fire at the Gold Country Bistro in Coulterville. Photo by Greg Little If there is one thing for certain, the Detwiler Fire brought out high emotions in almost everyone.

In northern Mariposa County, some local residents believe there was a lack of communications that led to confusion and very little information getting to the people. Others, though, believe every possible effort was made to inform the public and keep people safe.

“There needs to be a source of accurate, realtime information that people can use, go to and actually trust,” said local resident Shannon Poe, who stayed at his property on Dogtown Road near the United States Forest Service fire station.

“We don’t want to be negative,” said resident John Kirby. “We need to work on communication in this town.”

Both Coulterville and Greeley Hill underwent some sort of evacuation orders, though how it was enforced is being questioned by some.

For instance, both the Greeley Hill True Value Hardware Store and the Greeley Hill Market were allowed to stay open during the entire evacuation.

“I think it was a wise idea to leave the market and hardware store open, but it also sets a standard we are going to look the other way on these two businesses but we are going to make everyone else leave,” said Poe.

Kirby said he thinks there “needs to be a solid plan. I would think a plan would have been in place from the Rim Fire.”

Kirby said “solid information” needs to be in place during such an event.

Poe agrees.

“There needs to be some cohesiveness on disseminating the information out to everyone,” said Poe.

Local resident and photographer Al Golub had a different take.

“Basically, this fire went so fast you can’t really issue any criticism on notification and things like that,” said Golub. “They were doing the best they could. I’ve been at hundreds of fires. Look at the outcome. Nobody lost a home in north County.”

Poe said he decided to stay at his property, adding “nobody forced me to leave.”

Poe said he did speak with a sheriff’s deputy and told that person he was not leaving.

In doing so, Poe utilized social media in an effort to get the word out to the people of Coulterville and Greeley Hill.

“The communications issue is a big sticking point with most of the residents,” said Poe. “The community decided to take the communication on itself.”

Poe shot videos on a regular basis and placed them on the Greeley Hill/Coulterville News Facebook page.

He also said the issue of people who ran out of fuel and food was critical. Some, he said, were afraid to leave because they would then not be allowed back in.

Poe said he helped some of those people.

“You have got to do what you have got to do,” said Poe. “I went in through a different route. I do think people who did stay should have been allowed to get fuel and food. And that wasn’t being done.”

“People need to learn patience,” said District 2 Supervisor Merlin Jones. He said “99.9 percent understood we don’t want them back in their houses if it is not safe.”

Jones did say concerning communications there was “a little confusion.”

After each event like this, Jones said “we learn a little more.”

For Jones, he said he will focus in improving the system for the future.

“The number one thing I am going to work on is better communication all around the board,” said Jones.

Both Poe and Kirby agree there needs to be improvements.

Poe feels that in the future, local officials should designate one person to be able to gather and release “reliable information.”

That information would include “going around and giving an update on where the fire is going. It puts their (residents) minds at ease.”

He also said putting out videos of the event should be a priority “so people can actually see it (the fire). You have to paint a picture. That’s what people need.”

“Maybe a local official could stand out there (at a designated place) and have one-on-one contact,” said Kirby. “That needs to happen.”

Poe said many people were without power, which meant no communications to the outside world. He believes someone should have went to a central location each day and made contact with the public to give them updates.

“In my opinion, the position of the County supervisor is for the people,” said Poe.

Golub said there are communications “limitations” in the Coulterville and Greeley Hill areas.

However, both Golub and Jones emphasized people should sign up for the Nixle alert system offered through the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office. It is a free service and alerts residents about emergency situations.

Golub said even when he didn’t have cell phone service, he was able to get text messages through the Nixle system. That was true in many parts of the County, where residents reported not having cell service but being able to use text messaging.

Jones said one issue he found out about is that most of the cell towers in north County don’t have a backup generator. They rely on PG&E service only.

As was learned in this fire, PG&E cut power to nearly the entire County for the safety of firefighters and other emergency workers.

He also said AT&T is in the process of putting up new cell towers from Lake Don Pedro to Buck Meadows. He said officials from the company said they will be focusing on putting backup generators at those sites in case of emergencies.

Kirby said he his hopeful everyone can work together and discuss the various issues associated with the Detwiler Fire, including what went right and what went wrong.

“We are going to have another fire,” said Kirby.

Everyone was in agreement that emergency workers did a tremendous job during the fast-moving fire.

“We are thankful for CAL FIRE, the volunteers and all of agencies,” said Jones.

“We’re in this County together,” said Kirby.

“We’re lucky we are in a state that is the leader in aircraft,” said Golub about the effort put forth in the aerial attack, one that he said helped save many homes.

Golub said he was at first opposed to the converted DC-10 aircraft because of the cost.

Now, he said, after seeing those planes in action, he believes it is worth every penny.

Greg Little is Editor of the Mariposa Gazette and can be reached at greg@mariposagazette.com.

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