Public Safety & Homeland Security

Deadly Yosemite Fire Grows to 4,310 Acres, Evacuations Ordered

A deadly wildfire along the Merced River near Yosemite National Park quadrupled in size overnight and pushed closer to the park Sunday.

by Michael Cabanatuan, Houston Chronicle / July 16, 2018
Traffic backs up along the valley floor at Yosemite National Park on July 16, 2017. A firefighter was killed on Saturday, July 14, 2018, while battling a wildfire in the nearby Sierra National Forest. Brian vander Brug/Los Angeles Times//TNS

(TNS) — With high temperatures and steep, rugged terrain hampering firefighters, a deadly wildfire along the Merced River near Yosemite National Park quadrupled in size overnight and pushed closer to the park Sunday.

The Ferguson fire in Mariposa County had burned through 4,310 acres and was just 2 percent contained Sunday evening, fire officials said. Some 500 firefighters were working the blaze on the ground with support from aircraft.

No structures had burned but 108 were threatened as firefighters worked to protect structures along Highway 140 and prevent the blaze from crossing Ferguson Ridge.

"It is a very active fire, and since we're in a very warm trend, with afternoon temperatures in the triple digits, fire activity is expected to be on the high side," said Alex Olow, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

The cause of the fire has not been determined.

The fire, which started Friday in the Merced River Canyon and took the life of a firefighter Saturday, caused Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) to temporarily shut off power in the area and closed one of the main routes into the national park at the peak of the tourist season.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection bulldozer operator Braden Varney, 36, of Mariposa, died when his bulldozer rolled over as he built a firebreak, a Cal Fire spokesman said.

Varney worked for Cal Fire for 10 years, following the lead of his father, who also was a bulldozer operator, Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said. He is survived by his wife and two children. A bereavement fund for his family has been set up at GoFundMe.com.

Gov. Jerry Brown ordered flags at the Capitol lowered to half staff to honor Varney, and said he was saddened by the death of "a man who dedicated his life to protecting his fellow Californians."

Elsewhere in the state, firefighters gained more control of some of the biggest fires.

The County fire, east of Lake Berryessa, reached 100 percent containment with 90,288 acres burned. While the fire has been surrounded, McLean said crews will monitor the perimeter for weeks to come.

In Chico, firefighters on the Stoney fire in upper Bidwell Park gained 70 percent containment. The fire has burned 956 acres.

The Eagle fire, in the Modoc National Forest and other public lands in the northeast corner of the state, grew to 2,100 acres with 30 percent containment.

The fire outside Yosemite in the Sierra National Forest closed Highway 140, one of the main routes into the park, between Midpines and El Portal in both directions.

Yosemite Valley was covered in smoke but remained open and accessible through entrances on highways 120 and 41.

Scott Gediman, a Yosemite spokesman, said entry lines at the south entrance on Highway 41 were at least two hours long Sunday afternoon. No significant delays were reported at the Big Oak Flat entrance on Highway 120 north of the fire.

The fire was burning outside park boundaries but was getting closer and sending clouds of smoke into the park. Forest Service fire officials on Sunday afternoon recommended, but did not order, evacuations from Yosemite West, a subdivision just outside the park near the road to Glacier Point. A fire crew was sent to Yosemite West to plan structure protection.

Evacuation orders were issued for areas between Briceburg and Cedar Lodge on Highway 140, and for Mariposa Pines north of Bear Clover, as well as the Jerseydale area.

Aside from the smoke, Gediman said, Sunday was a normal summer day in Yosemite Valley: waterfalls flowed, lines of cars crawled through the valley and columns of hikers trudged up trails.

"So far, everything is OK," he said. "The park is open but we're advising anyone with respiratory issues to be careful."

Late Friday, PG&E shut off power lines in the area, including lines into Yosemite Valley, as a safety precaution. Many facilities in the valley have emergency generators.

Karly Hernandez, a PG&E spokeswoman, said Sunday that the utility brought in additional generators to restore electrical service for Yosemite Valley and all but 14 of the 607 affected customers. PG&E chose to use generators until it can inspect its lines for damage, she said.

Michael Cabanatuan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: mcabanatuan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ctuan

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