Only in the June 15 print edition:
Three Rivers Union School
GRAD PHOTOS and AWARDS
Historic Cider Mill destroyed by fire
One fatality in blaze that
consumed landmark 3R restaurant
A team of fire investigators — two from City of Visalia, two from City of Porterville, and three from Tulare County Fire Department — combed through the ruins of the Sequoia Cider Mill Restaurant this past week and concluded that the Friday, June 8, fire started in a storeroom adjacent to the kitchen. Tulare County Fire Captain Kevin Riggi, who headed up the investigation, said a badly burned-out wall was conclusive evidence to show where and how the fire began.
There were multiple electrical devices, including an ice machine, plugged into a surge protector in the storeroom where the flash point occurred. Nearby combustibles started to burn and soon generated enough heat to explode a CO2 cylinder used to carbonate beverages.
“Witnesses at the scene said they heard popping sounds and at least one loud explosion,” said Captain Riggi. “When these CO2 tanks explode, they can travel long distances and cause quite an impact.”
Investigators theorize that at least one tank exploded and the force carried fire through the wood walls in a northwesterly direction into the backyard. The popping sounds were power lines melting in the intense heat. Captain Riggi said there were lots of combustibles out back of the H-shaped complex, including lumber, firewood, furniture, restaurant supplies, and dry vegetation.
Smoke was first noticed at 3:30 p.m., and that’s when the alarm was sounded. Ten minutes later, a huge column of black smoke was billowing upward from the rear of the structure.
By this time, the restaurant had been evacuated and at least two fire units were on the scene. Several restaurant workers told firefighters that a family member, 13-year-old Geordie Gonzalez, was unaccounted for and that he was last seen in a back bedroom lying on a bed and watching television.
The smoke was so thick coming from the adjacent rooms that it was impossible to see into the residence behind the restaurant in an attempt to locate Geordie. The first team of firefighters, wearing their self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA), entered the burning structure and after braving intense smoke and heat, exhausted their air supplies before they could locate the missing boy.
Next, Tulare County Fire Captain Charles Steinway from the Ivanhoe station and firefighter Kevin Payne of Three Rivers entered the adjacent storeroom. They located Geordie almost immediately, lying at the rear of the structure. They removed the unconscious teen to a walkway behind the building and immediately began to administer CPR.
Within 25 minutes, the fire was consuming the restaurant premises as smoke billowed skyward from the attic and roof. About 30 minutes after ignition, at 4 p.m., huge flames were showing through the roof of the structure.
More than 35 area firefighters worked swiftly to contain the blaze but the Cider Mill, believed to be built in the 1920s, was a total loss.
The restaurant is owned by Efrain and Martha Ponce of Woodlake. They purchased the landmark eatery in February 2007.
A private insurance investigator was on the premises this past week and concurred with the findings of Captain Riggi’s team. No damage estimates will be made public until at least the end of the week, Riggi said.
NPS horses, mules die of dehydration
A Pixley cattleman said Wednesday that the deaths of National Park Service pack stock — two horses and eight mules — were caused by a water pump that shorted out at a well near the corrals at the Pixley National Wildlife Refuge in southern Tulare County. A 300-acre portion of the preserve has been used for winter pasture for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks pack animals since the refuge was established in 1959.
The man, who reported the deaths on Monday, June 4, to Greg Feltis, Ash Mountain animal caretaker, asked that his name not be used in connection with the story. He said his family has been running cattle in the area since the 1930s.
Since the preserve has been used by the NPS, the man said he can remember only two or three other deaths to government animals in all those years. Those deaths, he said, were from a rattlesnake bite or an animal dying of natural causes.
These latest deaths, according to the Pixley man, were most likely caused by a bug that got into the pump’s wiring, causing a short between the pressure points in a trough that sends an electric current to the pump. When the system is working and the trough is low, the pump automatically adds more water.
“When I got out there to check the trough there was no electricity and several dead animals scattered about,” the man told investigators. “One animal, when it was finally was able to get water, went into shock and died right there on the spot.”
At least two other NPS animals of the 17 that had remained in the pasture for the ill-fated weekend were transported for intensive care to a veterinarian in Exeter, the man said. One of those animals has since died, bringing the total to eight mules and two horses whose deaths were related to the dehydration incident.
The suspect trough and corrals are located along the boundary of two separate leased pastures that are administered jointly by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish and Game. One pasture is used to graze cattle while a separate lease serves as “winter pasture” for the pack stock of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
In the past, there has usually been about 65 to 70 head of NPS stock. This year, the man said, there were 85 head, so that may have been a factor as to why the 17 animals were at the preserve longer than usual.
“There was plenty of grass with the late rains this year so feed was not a problem,” the man said. “I took my cattle out on May 28 and told Greg [Feltis] I would periodically check the water until they came down to get the remaining stock.”
But the first weekend of June was extremely hot out at the preserve and, at some point during those two or three days, the water system failed.
“I did them a favor by going out there to check up on their stock,” the man said. “I was just doing what any good neighbor would do.”
Pixley National Wildlife Refuge— In the 1920s and ‘30s, title to large areas of former homestead tracks near Pixley reverted to the U.S. government. These lands, which were considered marginal for farming, were administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
On Nov. 6, 1958, an executive order transferred 4,350 acres of these USDA lands to the Department of the Interior. One year later, a land transfer officially created Pixley NWR, today the largest remaining grassland and wetland in the southern San Joaquin Valley.
The current boundaries of the refuge include 10,300 acres of which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns approximately 6,400 acres. That acreage and several thousand privately owned acres are managed as a portion of the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds and habitat for the leopard lizard, an endangered species.
Sequoia-Kings Canyon gears up for fire season
If conditions permit, park fire crews planned to complete what they’ve already started, which is burning vegetation in the Ash Mountain area to minimize risk of fire danger. This activity, which is no more than 25 acres, was expected to occur yesterday and today (June 14-15).
Park fire crews are also preparing to ignite the Whitaker Prescribed Fire as soon as a good air-quality window presents itself, which could be as early as this weekend or within the next couple of weeks. This is a 504-acre unit that will be managed jointly by National Park Service fire crews and the Center for Forestry from UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources.
This fire will be utilizing control lines created for the Redwood Mountain Prescribed Fire, a 626-acre burn administered by the Park Service in July 2011. North Fork Drive residents can expect some smoke in the early morning hours from the Whitaker burn.
Ignitions are complete on the 50-acre Round Meadow Prescribed Fire in the Giant Forest area of Sequoia National Park. It will continue to slowly burn within the unit.
On Thursday, June 7, a report was received of a fire near Panoramic Point in the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park. The fire was contained at one-tenth of an acre by Sequoia National Forest firefighters, who were first on-scene.
On Monday, June 11, park firefighters returning to the station from the Round Meadow Prescribed Fire discovered a fire near Dorst Campground. The half-acre fire was suppressed.
Both fires were reportedly caused by lightning strikes that occurred some weeks ago, then became more active as the weather became warmer and drier. Both will be patrolled and not allowed to spread.
The Arrowhead Hotshots, based in Kings Canyon National Park, are currently on assignment at the High Park Fire near Fort Collins, Colo. As of Thursday morning, June 14, the High Park Fire was at 46,600 acres with 10 percent containment. More than 1,000 personnel are involved in fighting the fire, the third-largest in recorded Colorado history.
Pot garden raided near Badger
Detectives from the county Sheriff’s Tactical Enforcement Personnel (STEP) team and Narcotics Unit responded Monday, June 11, to a wilderness area near Badger in regards to a large marijuana garden. This garden, containing 8,537 plants, had been located on a routine overflight earlier this month.
The marijuana was planted among native vegetation and beneath the tree canopy in an attempt to camouflage it from the air and any passersby.
Suspects at the grow site fled into heavy brush and thick forest when officers approached. A search of the immediate area was conducted with negative results.
Detectives found a sophisticated growing operation utilizing drip irrigation. A natural spring had been dammed and diverted to provide water for the grow site and an extensive campsite and firearms were found. Also located were rat poison and various insecticides and fertilizers used to spray the plants.
The plants have been eradicated, but no arrests were made.
Crashed car reported on MK Road
Sometime during the predawn hours of Thursday, June 7, a motorist crashed a 2001 Honda Civic on the Mineral King Road, about one-quarter mile from Highway 198. A local resident noticed the wrecked vehicle below the roadway at 7 a.m. and called the CHP.
The CHP investigating officer at the scene reported that the vehicle was travelling down the road too fast to make the final curve. The car left the roadway and came to a stop 50 feet below the roadway.
The owner of the vehicle is Elroy Arroyo of Visalia who informed the CHP that he had reported the vehicle stolen to the Visalia Police Department. No driver in the solo vehicle crash has been located.
Geordie Gonzalez died Friday, June 8, 2012, after becoming trapped inside an attached residence behind the Sequoia Cider Mill Restaurant as it burned. He was 13.
Geordie was the son of Antonio and Elizabeth Gonzalez of Ivanhoe. His mother was working at the restaurant at the time of the blaze and attempted to rescue her son. She is the sister of Martha Ponce, who with her husband, Efrain Ponce, owns the Cider Mill.
Just two days before the fire, the young teen had completed his seventh-grade year at Valley Oak Middle School in Visalia. Michael Hernandez, the school’s principal, said Geordie was well liked by everyone.
“He had a lot of respect and was a nice young man,” Hernandez said. “He would always look me in the eye and say ‘Good morning, Mr. Hernandez.’”
Principal Hernandez said Geordie interacted well with staff and students alike and he loved to draw. He said he and other Valley Oak staff members would be attending the services for Geordie.
A rosary and mass were held Wednesday and Thursday, June 13-14. Interment was at Woodlake Cemetery.
To help the family in their time of need, the Geordie Gonzalez Memorial Fund has been established at the Bank of the Sierra in Three Rivers.
Michael Hernandez is also accepting donations of teddy bears, which he will present to Geordie’s parents and younger brother.
There is a collection box for these donations at Valley Oak Middle School, 2000 N. Lovers Lane, Visalia.