Deadly California wildfire near Yosemite doubles in size

Updated July 16, 2018 - 5:34 pm

MARIPOSA, Calif. — A deadly wildfire near Yosemite National Park has doubled in size and shrouded the popular destination in smoke, but tourists could still use all trails, campgrounds, lodges and restaurants Monday, officials said.

Visitors were arriving and amenities were open, but the growing flames shut down a key route into the California park at the peak of tourist season. A stretch of State Route 140 has been closed since the weekend, and motorists have been urged to find alternate routes.

“All the campgrounds and the hotels are open — the shuttles are running,” Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said. “We have limited visibility, but aside from that, the park is open and fully operational.”

The Yosemite Conservancy, a group that supports the park, posted time-lapse video showing smoke billowing through the park, then enveloping and completely obscuring Half Dome, an iconic rock formation. Park webcams showed other landmarks, such the El Capitan rock formation, concealed by thick plumes of smoke.

The blaze scorching dry brush along steep, remote hillsides grew overnight to 14 square miles (36 kilometers) and was largely burning out of control, U.S. Forest Service spokesman John DeYoe said.

Inaccessible terrain and temperatures spiking to 95 degrees (35 Celsius) made it difficult for crews to slow the blaze that started Friday. More fire engines were expected to arrive later Monday to try to stop the flames from reaching more than 100 homes and commercial buildings that are under threat, DeYoe said.

Evacuations were ordered over the weekend for the Yosemite Cedar Lodge, which is outside the park, and in nearby communities as flames crept up slopes and the air became thick with smoke.

Danette Moreno, 64, said she, her husband and their dog left their home in Mariposa Pines shortly after midnight Sunday and went to a shelter. The couple retired to their home about five years ago from the Los Angeles area and said they had seen three fires in that time, but this was the first time they had to evacuate.

“My attitude is never ‘Why me?’” Moreno told the Merced-Sun Star newspaper. “It’s out of our hands.”

A firefighter died early Saturday as he drove a bulldozer to create a gap in vegetation to keep the flames from extending into a nearby community, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.

 

The body of heavy fire equipment operator Braden Varney, 36, is in a “precarious location” and conditions have been too dangerous to retrieve it, Cal Fire Deputy Chief Scott McLean said. Crews will try again Monday.

Investigators were seeking more details about Varney’s death, but they believe he was working his way out of the fire area when he was killed, officials said.

Varney, who was married with two young children, had worked for Cal Fire for 10 years.

The wildfire that killed Varney is one of several burning across the state and among 56 large blazes that are active in the U.S., most in the American West, a region struggling with drought and heat.

A blaze near the California-Oregon border that killed a 72-year-old resident and injured three firefighters was entirely contained by Sunday after burning more than 60 square miles (155 square kilometers) of dry brush.

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