'Worry for the town' is real in Three Rivers as KNP Complex Fire grows in sequoias

Joshua Yeager
Visalia Times-Delta

Tulare County is under siege by a series of lightning-sparked wildfires that have shuttered Sequoia National Park and placed hundreds of Three Rivers residents under a voluntary evacuation warning.

On Monday, businesses in the gateway community reported deja vu as the KNP Complex upended vacations and disrupted livelihoods one year after the Castle Fire forced many to flee the foothills.

"We know business will bounce back, but it's still crummy," said Josh Moore, Kaweah Coffee Roasters manager. "We got through last year's fires when we were closed for about 10 days. If you don't open for a week, you don't get paid for a week."

Longtime Three Rivers residents said they are growing accustomed to a "new normal" of preparing to evacuate on a moment's notice as climate change and drought conditions cause the Sierra Nevada's dead and overgrown forests to burn with blazing intensity.

"Last year, I think a lot of us were panicking because it's the first time many of us had experienced a real evacuation," said Amberly Quillen, a Three Rivers native. "When you've done it before, though, it changes your mindset. You're more prepared."

"It's just part of life here now."

Sequoia's sudden weekend closure left tourists from as far as Tennessee stranded near the Ash Mountain entrance. Park officials anticipate the majority of the park will be closed for at least a week and likely longer as firefighters work to contain the fast-growing complex of fires. The Kings Canyon National Park entrance in Fresno County remains open for now.

Lightning ignited three fires in the parks overnight Thursday. By Saturday evening, the park had closed its Tulare County entrance. On Sunday, the closure was extended to the Giant Forest and General Sherman Tree, the world's largest tree and a major tourist attraction.

That same day, the Paradise and Colony fires were renamed the KNP Complex. The fire has burned more than 1,000 acres as of Monday, but thick smoke has impeded mapping efforts, and the fire's true footprint could be much larger, officials said.

An evacuation warning is in place for Three Rivers east of North Fork Drive, on both sides of Highway 198. Fire managers said the warning is in place out of "an abundance of caution," with the flames currently burning about 15 miles east of North Fork.

Community leaders said they are taking the warning seriously, but many have remained in the town. Jessica Fonce spent the morning rigging her sprinklers to water down her home. 

"It's very concerning. You could see the fires glowing and lighting up the sky last night," she said. "I'm packed up and ready to leave if necessary."

Fonce moved into her home on August Drive about 5 miles from the park's entrance only two months ago. Before moving in, she had trees near the property cut down and removed all of the dead vegetation. 

Despite the evacuation warning and some difficulties buying insurance for the home in California's rapidly expanding fire country, Fonce says she doesn't regret making the move. Fonce blames poor forest management and a worsening drought for the increasingly frequent and severe fire activity, she said. 

"I grew up in Northern California, and the forests weren't like this. The forests today are so thick and overgrown with minimal fire breaks," she said. "It's insane."

School remains open

After consulting with the sheriff and board members, Three Rivers Union School chose to remain open to its students, Superintendent Sue Sherwood said.

"We only got the notice last [Sunday] night. Even though we're in the area of the evacuation warning, [Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux] did not think closing the school would be necessary," she said. "We're going to keep plugging along day by day for as long as we can be here and be safe."

She pointed out the school closed exactly one year ago for a few days due to the Castle Fire. Between wildfires and the coronavirus pandemic, students at the small school of about 120 have experienced some learning loss — a reality that school officials are determined to avoid as much as possible.

"You don't want kids out of school any more than absolutely necessary," the superintendent said, adding that outside time has been canceled for students because of the poor air quality. "We have a great team of firefighters, first responders, and agencies who are all working together to keep us safe."

As a result of the fires, a voting precinct at the nearby Three Rivers Memorial Building will not be open for California's gubernatorial recall election on Tuesday. Instead, in-person voters are directed to the Exeter Memorial Building at 324 N. Kaweah Ave. or Woodlake Memorial Building at 355 N. Acacia St.

Three Rivers residents remained hopeful that their town would not be forced to evacuate. 

"I do worry for the town," Quillen said. "Despite the fires, it will always be home. I trust the firefighters and first responders to keep us safe."

Mineral King

A mandatory evacuation order is in effect for the Mineral King area in the mountains south of Sequoia National Park.

Lisa Monteiro, director of the Mineral King Preservation Society, spent Monday transporting pieces in the museum's collection to a secure location in Visalia.

The resort community was built in the late 1800s and was once eyed by Walt Disney as a possible tourist attraction for skiers. The resort’s last standing cabin was built in 1914 and is on the National Register of Historic Places, along with Mineral King Road and a neighboring cabin community.

"We take seriously the idea that people have entrusted us with keeping this history alive and safe," Monteiro said. "I hope I'll be able to drive everything back up next week." 

Joshua Yeager covers water, agriculture, parks, and housing for the Visalia Times-Delta and Tulare Advance-Register newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @VTD_Joshy. Get alerts and keep up on all things Tulare County for as little as $1 a month. Subscribe today.