Mariposa, California residents learn to live with wildfires
6 mins read

Mariposa, California residents learn to live with wildfires

MARIPOSA, Calif. – Brenda Ostrom has lived in this gold rush town since 1998 and recently has been busy building what she calls her dream kitchen.

“It’s all custom,” he says.

She has already put about $80,000 into the renovation and expects it to be completed by September. Ostrom likes the people in Mariposa and has become accustomed to the climate. But she has also seen a lot of fires near her town.

Residents fled their homes last week when a fast-moving fire broke out on a hillside outside the city. The French Fire broke out July 4 and quickly burned 908 acres.

Firefighters managed to stop the spread of the fire just on the outskirts of town.

“There have always been fires, but nothing like this,” he said of the French Fire, which spread quickly under the heatwave and forced residents to evacuate. The blaze threatened more than 1,000 homes — many of them the only homes Mariposa residents have.

By some estimates, the French Fire is the seventh in the past 20 years to spread to more than 500 acres. The blaze was 80% contained Wednesday and the cause was still under investigation, according to Cal Fire.

“I think the first year it happens, you think, ‘Wow. That was bad. But what are the chances it’ll happen again?'” Ostrom says, reflecting. “You don’t think it will, but now it’s just a recurring theme.”

Despite frequent fires in recent years, Ostrom is not ready to leave yet.

She plans to renovate her kitchen in the long term. But she admits she panicked when the fire broke out because her neighbor’s house had collapsed.

“I made the decision within those two hours that if my house burned down, I would leave the community,” she said.

A total of four homes were lost in the French Fire. That’s a small number compared to the dozens that have been lost in previous fires.

A community where you need to be ready to act

Mary Boiler stands next to a table full of family photos. Her daughter's portrait is to her left.

Mary Boiler stands next to a table full of family photos. Her daughter’s portrait is to her left.

Despite its unpredictable surroundings, many residents feel attached to Mariposa.

When residents were allowed to return to their homes several days later, Mary Boiler unpacked the plastic bag her daughter had filled with valuables when the fire broke out.

The bag contained family photos, Mother’s Day cards, and one of Boiler’s favorite colognes, from Jo Malone.

“We had nothing, and I was so moved when I saw how she had collected the photos that meant the most to us and to her,” she said.

When the family noticed the first plumes of smoke rising from the hills, Boiler’s thoughts did not immediately turn to saving her belongings. She was busy hooking up the camper, catching the cats and dog, and monitoring the progress of the fire.

After 22 years of living in Mariposa, Boiler and her family consider their escape plan routine.

Boiler and her partner used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. But the aspects of foothill living make up for what the Bay Area lacks, especially in terms of social interaction, she says.

“We are closer friends with our neighbor who we can’t even see (in Mariposa) than we ever were with our neighbors who lived next door to us in San Francisco or the East Bay,” he says.

Boiler said Mariposa, a town far removed from the hustle and bustle of the Valley cities, “has something for everyone.” For some, it’s a stopover on the way to iconic Sierra Nevada attractions like Yosemite National Park. For her, it’s home — although in that home, she has to memorize the sounds of different planes used to put out fires.

“We all know the sound of a CDF plane. We all know the sound of a reconnaissance plane. We all know the sound of helicopters,” Boiler says.

And just to be safe, he plans to leave the camper hooked up to the truck all summer long.

Finding Beauty in the Midst of Disaster

Brenda Ostrom poses in her new kitchen during its renovation.

Brenda Ostrom poses in her new kitchen during its renovation.

At Ostrom’s home, fire is a frequent topic of conversation with building contractor Jason Fitzwater.

He lives along the highway in Jerseydale, another former mining town.

One day, while drilling in Ostrom’s kitchen, Fitzwater laughed nervously as he confessed that his house would surely burn down in his lifetime.

“I assume we’re all temporary residents here at the foot of the mountains,” Fitzwater says. “That’s how I look at it… And if it doesn’t work out, it’s a hot dog!”

Still, Ostrom says he is taking precautions to minimize risks.

“You can’t think, ‘My house will be OK because of the firefighters,’” Ostrom says. “They’re amazing. But it’s going to take cleaning the house (and) using common sense.”

Ostrom emphasizes that “you can’t wait for the government to somehow take care of everything in a crisis situation, because it is not able to do so.”

Ultimately, she says, those who put out fires in her city are human too.

Neither Fitzwater nor Ostrom want to face the consequences of living in an area prone to wildfires. But neither do they want to live in a big city, where people, they say, don’t have the freedom of the hills and where they might not know each other as well as they do here.

That’s why, despite the risks, Ostrom continues to focus on the positive aspects of Mariposa – what keeps her here.

“After the fire season, in the fall, winter and spring, it’s so beautiful that there’s this amnesia that sets in, and I think that’s part of being human,” Ostrom says. “That we can’t remember that we were traumatized all the time, that we find (a way) to forget about it.”