The wind-blown blaze that destroyed much of an Eastern Sierra town and killed an elderly woman Tuesday jumped from home to home so fast that people were unable to save possessions before frantically evacuating, residents and authorities said Friday.
Mono County Sheriff Ingrid Braun said the fire started with a spark of unknown origin behind Mountain View BBQ in Walker, a town of about 1,000 people on the California-Nevada border.
What has been dubbed the Mountain View fire “just whipped through” the community, she said, burning about 90 homes, many ranch-style properties spread apart. “It would burn a house, skip a house, burn a house, skip a house,” she said.
By Thursday, it had consumed more than 28,000 acres.
Extreme high winds in the area had caused Southern California Edison to cut off power to some nearby areas, but Braun said Walker receives power from Nevada-based Liberty Utilities and had not been cut off — though there is no current evidence that the blaze was caused by a failure of that system.
Authorities have so far reported one fatality: Sallie Joseph, 69. The details of her death are not confirmed, but Braun said she was found in her home, which was destroyed by the conflagration.
A local television station, News4, interviewed neighbors of Joseph who said they tried to warn her but were turned back when flames raced toward her home.
“I pounded on the windows, and I knew she might be there because the vehicles were, and I went inside the house and I screamed again,” said Charles Padilla, who was unable to make contact; he also lost his own home in the blaze.
Braun said authorities went door to door to evacuate residents and send alerts to cellphones.
At one point, the fire burned so hot it created a giant pyrocumulus cloud that could be seen for miles.
But the blaze no longer threatens Walker. “Rain and snow came in and put it out,” said Braun. It continues to burn on the Nevada side, where the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is in charge of suppressing it.
The combination of fire, rain and snow this week was not unprecedented in the Eastern Sierra, but it made it made for a strange mashup of meteorological events. About 88 miles north of Walker, the Pinehaven fire also started Tuesday afternoon in the Caughlin Ranch area of Reno, according to authorities. It destroyed five homes and damaged 15 others but caused no fatalities.
That same night, chains were required for motorists crossing over the Sierra on Interstate 80 because of snow and slippery conditions.
Braun said firefighters from other agencies and the state had responded, but winds were so fierce there was fear fire trucks would topple going into the mountainous region. Now, she said, the community is focused on recovery.
“That is the beautiful thing about Mono County. We are resilient and we take care of each other,” she said.
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