The Washburn Fire burned for nearly a month this last summer and engulfed the Mariposa Grove area of Yosemite National Park. The fire, which started July 7, also came dangerously close to Camp Wawona, causing an evacuation of the camp and the Wawona area surrounding it. This fire was finally extinguished on August 1, but not until it burned nearly 5,000 acres of Yosemite and the surrounding area.
Damian Martin, caretaker for Camp Wawona, was at the camp when the fire started near Camp Wawona’s south entrance. It was already about four to five miles from the camp when it began, and the firefighters began tactical fires on the edge of the camp’s property. Because the fire was moving north toward the camp and the Wawona community, the camp would have been the first location hit by the fire.
“They cleared fire breaks all along our perimeter,” explained Martin. “So the fire actually got within about a quarter mile of us, but the tactical burning was right on our property line.”
The fire began on a Thursday, and the camp had a group scheduled to arrive that weekend. On Friday, the local ranger stopped by the camp in the morning and advised the staff that they weren’t under evacuation notice and that the guests could come.
But later in the day the staff noticed a shift in the smoke cloud. “It jumped a ridge they weren’t thinking it would and started coming downhill toward us, and there was a little bit of a wind change. It started making a beeline toward our community,” explained Martin.
At that point, about 4:00 in the afternoon, the firefighters came back to the camp and gave a ten-minute notice to evacuate the camp. “We already had some guests come and check in, and some were on their way,” said Martin.
They didn’t have any time to prepare for evacuation as they normally do. With previous fires, they have been given a potential evacuation warning about a day in advance. “We didn’t get that potential evacuation warning,” said Martin. “It was just a mandatory evacuation warning, right now, giving us ten minutes to get everyone out.”
Martin began their evacuation plan, which involved emptying all the cabins, turning off the gas tanks and collecting some of the major equipment to move out of the camp. Two volunteers, Jose Campos and Alberto Alvarrado, helped Martin clear out the camp and load the equipment. This included moving some of the large equipment, like the skid steer, equipment truck and trailer, and most of the forestry equipment—things that would help recover the camp if the fire did burn through it.
It was already late in the day by the time they were able to leave the camp, and they weren’t able to leave by the south entrance. “We had to go all the way around to the west entrance, and it was slow going because of the equipment,” said Martin. On the way out, one of the trucks even had a flat tire, slowing them down more.
They finally moved all of the equipment to a local church member’s home to store until the fire was contained. But two weeks later, the Oak Fire started about a mile from that church member’s home where the equipment was being stored. “I had to drive up from Southern California while they were under evacuation order. My wife and I were able to get all of the equipment out and back to our facility safely.” While moving the equipment, they were within 200 to 300 feet of the Oak Fire.
Damian said this experience showed him that the camp does have a good contingency plan for moving people and equipment out of the camp. He was happy with the speed in which they were able to execute the plan. He said he did learn that the firefighters are not always going to be able to give them advanced warning before they evacuate. “If the fire is that close, things can change in a moment’s notice,” he explained.
This also reaffirmed his belief that God has a plan for everything. The camp staff asked God to make His guidance obvious. “Even if there is an inconvenience, God has a plan for everything,” said Damian. “He made it very obvious when it was our time to leave. We just have to have faith that it was for a reason. We have to trust that all things work together for good for those who love God.”
By Brennan Hallock