SHAVER LAKE, Fresno County (CBS SF) — Firefighters battling a massive wildfire in tinder-dry and bark beetle infested Sierra forest near Shaver Lake were confronted with a new threat — a cache of avalanche explosives stashed in a bunker at the China Peak ski area.

Fresno County Sheriff’s Lt. Brandon Purcell said thankfully officials had been forewarned of the explosives so fire crews were immediately pulled back to safety late Wednesday night.

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“There was a known facility that stored explosives for avalanche control,” he said at Thursday night’s briefing. “We were aware of that and due to the fire there was an explosion. We had no injuries and are still working on investigating it to determine all causes.”

He said agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives would take part in that investigation.

Two major wilderness hiking trails — the Pacific Crest and the John Muir — crisscross the fire zone. Purcell said infrared scanners were being used to try to local hikers in the thick forest. A group of 20 hikers had made their way to rural Florence Lake.

“We will begin an operation to get them out at 7 a.m. (Friday),” he said.

By late Thursday, the fire complex had grown to 175,893 acres, was 6 percent containment along the southern edge of the fire and at least 361 structures have been destroyed.

Damage Assessment teams reported that at least 60 single residences and at least 277 mixed commercial/residential buildings destroyed.

Damage In Shaver Creek


While a thick layer of smoke draped over the fire zone kept temperatures down and humidity levels up, it was also preventing fire officials from launching an attack of the blaze from the ski.

“It was not a great day for aircraft,” Great Basin Team 1 operations manager Chris Delaney said. “We had limited to reduced visibility on the ground. We did not fly any aircraft into the north zone for bucket drops of water or retardant.”

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Early Friday, firefighters were working on halting the southwest movement of the blaze near Meadow Lakes and along Toll House Road. Officials said they were anticipating a wind shift to the south, southwest over the next few days that could challenge the fire lines along the south edge.

Crews also worked to secure areas around structures in the areas of Auberry, Shaver Lake, Hudson Lake and Huntington Lake.

Unfortunately, several homes had been destroyed along Auberry Road in the Meadow Lakes. Photos show cluster of homes and properties left in ruins as the fire blazed through. Videos also showed extensive damage down Peterson Road near Tollhouse Road.

At an evacuation center at the Clovis North High School, the American Red Cross was assisting evacuees, helping to book hotels, look after pets and provide food and other basic necessities.

John and Val Maylone, retirees and residents of the Burrough Valley near Tollhouse for nearly 20 years, were forced to evacuate early Tuesday morning.

“We had four hours to pack up our pets and a few medications and things like that that are essential,” John told Reuters on Thursday.

But of their 30 cats, three were left behind.

“We’re now worried about (them) because we left food and water for them but probably not enough for as long as they tell us we’re going to have to be out here,” John said, adding that news reports indicated that he and his wife would likely have to stay away for at least a week.

A spokesperson for the Red Cross said about 1,200 evacuees had been served so far.

Paul and Tammy Johnson, 49 and 47, respectively, fled from their home in Auberry on Monday with their dog Teddy.

Tammy described a journey filled with difficulties.

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“We were able to get our RV out of there, but then our truck broke down. So we had to call for help. The sheriff’s department pulled us out of Auberry into Prather. And then we had our daughter come up to get us. And the trucks are too small, so she went back down the hill, got a bigger truck, came up. And then the truck that broke down – we tried to have towed from a friend. That didn’t work out. We squatted his trailer and messed it up. Our refrigerator broke down in our trailer. Our lights went out. We got a flat tire. It’s been really difficult,” said Tammy.