The ash tornadoes along the road to what might still be called home frighten Jessina Diaz-Hunter’s children.
They fear the periodic smoky swirls might be hiding more walls of flames like the ones the family escaped last month, rushing from their ranch in Mariposa County as the Oak Fire closed in upon them.
They got a stroke of luck when the wind suddenly shifted the afternoon of July 22 as they were rounding up livestock and pets to flee from Rocking Lazy DJ Bar Ranch.
“If the wind hadn’t changed, it would have came right over us and we wouldn’t have been able to get out,” Diaz-Hunter said of evacuating within the first couple hours of the Oak Fire. “It was moving that fast.”
The wildfire became the second largest in California this year.
Diaz-Hunter thinks 90% or more of her 35-acre property near Mariposa burned, located in a rural area between Bootjack and Midpines west of Yosemite National Park. Her family’s three-bedroom home, barns, and three of four rentals on the ranch, a cabin and two mobile homes, burned down – among 127 homes fire officials estimate were destroyed by the Oak Fire.
The renter of the cabin, Dana Robinson, is a single mother and social worker for Mariposa County. The domestic violence survivor found a haven in the mountain cabin she shared with her 11-year-old daughter, Lola, for the past three years.
“It’s just so overwhelming because it was so much more than a house to me,” Robinson said tearfully of the loss.
Diaz-Hunter and Robinson want to return to living at the Rocking Lazy DJ Bar Ranch. As the Oak Fire nears full containment, they are among hundreds in Mariposa County now facing the tough task of rebuilding their lives.
Escaping the Oak Fire in Mariposa County
Shortly after the Oak Fire ignited at 2:10 p.m. July 22 in Midpines, its growing smoke plume was frighteningly visible to Diaz-Hunter as the wildfire moved south toward her ranch, tearing through oaks, pines and brush.
Like most mountain residents, she was used to living with the threat of wildfires, but never one like this. She saw flames as tall as a six-story building connect and become a fire tornado, engulfing everything in its path with a sound like a jet engine roaring dangerously close.
“I can’t even explain how fast they were moving ... within seconds, an entire mountain was gone,” Diaz-Hunter said of those flames.
The terror of those moments was compounded by a glitch in her family’s fire evacuation plan: The clutch was out on their truck, meant to pull a small trailer they previously loaded with supplies in anticipation for a day like July 22. Both the truck and trailer had to stay behind and were destroyed by the fire.
She and her husband, Jeromey Diaz-Hunter, left the Rocking Lazy DJ Bar Ranch instead in a van packed with animals and their children, Isaiah, 14, Benjamin, 6, and Gerald, 2.
They got help evacuating livestock from the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office and people at the Mariposa Fairgrounds, where large animals were being sheltered, but rescuers weren’t able to find all their spooked creatures that day.
Jessina Diaz-Hunter slipped past road closures a couple days later to find more goats, chickens and cats – some with burnt paws, but amazingly alive – at a barn on the property. Diaz-Hunter said it felt like a teardrop from God protected that patch of unscathed earth around them.
In all, her family evacuated with 32 chickens, 15 cats, 10 goats, six horses, five dogs, and two litters of kittens. A couple cats were missing and later found. Some of the pets belonged to another renter on the property who wasn’t home when the fire started.
That person’s mobile home was also destroyed. Of two other mobile homes on the ranch, both vacant, just one single-wide survived that’s been in need of repairs.
Robinson was at the Mariposa County Health & Human Services Agency, where she works assisting foster parents, when she learned of the Oak Fire. Law enforcement were blocking roads to her cabin when she tried to return there later that Friday. She accepted the road blocks with relief after seeing huge amounts of black smoke.
“My brother’s house burned down in the Paradise fires a few years ago, and a bunch of people died getting out,” Robinson said. “And as I’m driving to my home to get stuff, I’m starting to think, ‘This is a bad idea. I should not go closer to the fire.’”
Lola, Robinson’s daughter, was fortunately in San Diego at the time visiting her grandmother, along with the family’s two dogs. Lola is returning to the area this weekend so she can start a new school year on Wednesday at Woodland Elementary School in Mariposa.
Oak Fire information from Cal Fire
There have been no reported fatalities due to the Oak Fire – the best news in light of the tragedy – but Cal Fire said some were injured and treated, almost all for heat-related illness.
In addition to the 127 “single residence structures” that burned down, Cal Fire estimates the Oak Fire destroyed 66 outbuildings. Another six homes and four outbuildings are listed as damaged. Most of the damage inspection has been completed, Cal Fire said.
The wildfire burned 19,244 acres and is listed as 98% contained. A Cal Fire official on Friday said it will likely be a while before the wildfire is declared fully contained. Firefighters continued to patrol the area, extinguishing hot spots and felling hazardous trees.
The Cal Fire Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit said it shared its final daily Oak Fire update on social media Wednesday.
The cause of the Oak Fire remains under investigation.
Grieving homes near Yosemite and the future
The Diaz-Hunter family and Robinson have been staying with friends in the area. The Rocking Lazy DJ Bar Ranch owners are in the process of figuring out how they can rebuild, but Robinson, as a renter, isn’t as sure what to do next.
“Renters kind of just like slip between the cracks,” Robinson said of wildfire recovery resources, many focused on homeowners. “I love it here. I love this town. I love Mariposa. I’m so happy here, but I’m almost certain I’m going to get priced out. I just don’t see me ever being able to find a rental that’s affordable here again, because, as a social worker, I’m constantly trying to help my clients find affordable housing, and there’s really just no such thing.”
She felt lucky to have found an affordable rental on the Rocking Lazy DJ Bar Ranch. Many others in rural Mariposa County are more expensive vacation rentals.
“Once I landed that home, I felt so proud,” Robinson said tearfully. “All I want is for my daughter to be OK and to like have a good childhood, and I felt like I was finally doing that.”
The cabin was in a tranquil spot nestled between two mountains along Memory Lane off Triangle Road. The road, one of the heaviest hit by the fire, is best-known to many as part of the most direct route from Oakhurst to Yosemite’s west entrance along Highway 140. To hundreds of displaced residents, it was and is still home.
“It totally looks like a war zone,” Robinson said. “Everything is just burned down.”
Diaz-Hunter said the Rocking Lazy DJ Bar Ranch is part of what was a much larger property, once spanning 1,600 acres.
“Our property has been in the family since 1852,” she said. “Originally, two brothers came over from Germany, and they went around the Horn of Africa with a sawmill, and they landed in San Francisco Bay and brought the sawmill up to Mariposa in 1852.”
Diaz-Hunter works as a teacher’s assistant at Woodland Elementary, and as an in-home caregiver. Her husband works at Bootjack Market and previously worked as a heavy-equipment mechanic prior to an injury. The Oak Fire destroyed his tools, worth tens of thousands of dollars, in addition to equipment Diaz-Hunter had used to sell excess firewood and cut weeds in the area for some extra income. Saddles and other supplies for a business they ran called Saddle ‘em Up Trail Rides also burned.
Two vehicles and two small trailers were destroyed. The family is down to one working vehicle, the van, when what they really need now is their destroyed truck. A Suburban SUV survived the fire but isn’t running. The family of five has been living in the spare bedroom of a house owned by a friend’s parents.
Some of the more sentimental losses were many old family photographs going back seven generations, and a “grandmother oak” in the front yard with an attached swing that their children loved.
For Robinson, the losses include her daughter’s artwork and beloved book collection.
“I have like nothing to show that she was ever a little girl,” Robinson said. “I don’t have any of her little things that she made. It’s all gone.”
In the stead of those precious belongings, a friend’s fifth-wheel trailer that Robinson is living in is filling with donations.
“That’s why I love Mariposa. ... It’s like a real community, everybody helps each other,” Robinson said. “I’m very grateful for that.”
Diaz-Hunter hopes more donations in the not-so-distant future will include help rebuilding homes.
“Our community is strong,” Diaz-Hunter said, “and we can come together and help each other rebuild.”
How to help and wildfire recovery resources
Fundraisers: A GoFundMe for Robinson and her daughter, titled, “Mother and Social Worker lost home in Oak Fire,” has raised over $12,000. A more recently created GoFundMe benefiting the Diaz-Hunter family, titled, “Oak Fire Took Our Family’s Homestead,” has raised over $1,200.
Both are among many campaigns listed on a GoFundMe hub of Oak Fire fundraisers that continues to grow as the crowdfunding company verifies them.
Those interested in contacting Diaz-Hunter and Robinson to help in other ways can reach them via email at RockingLazyDJBar@outlook.com, for Diaz-Hunter, and email@example.com for Robinson. Affordable rentals in the area, trailers, and a truck are among their wish list items.
Mariposa County Local Assistance Center: Information about many resources that can help those impacted by the Oak Fire are listed online at mariposacounty.org/2652/Local-Assistance-Center-Resources. The long list of services includes agencies that can help residents with debris cleanup, rebuilding homes, and replacing personal identification documents that were destroyed.