Hot and tinder-dry weather on Monday is expected to further test firefighters battling the explosive Oak Fire west of Yosemite National Park, which barreled out of control over the weekend into California’s largest fire of the year, forcing thousands of people to flee from their homes.
Fire crews issued several fresh evacuations on Sunday as the blaze metastasized in several directions — overtaking the communities of Jerseydale, Darrah and Lushmeadows while threatening the small enclaves of Bootjack and Mariposa Pines. But with nothing in the way of rain or cooler temperatures in the forecast, fire crews braced for more erratic fire behavior, while warning that the number of destroyed structures was likely to increase in the days ahead from an initial count of 10.
Embers kicked up by the blaze spotted additional fires two miles ahead, confounding firefighters. And on Sunday afternoon, another blaze — the Wheeler Fire — ignited just to the north of the Oak Fire, forcing some fire crews to peel off and battle it instead.
As of Sunday night, the blaze remained 0% contained after having charred 15,603 acres, up from a morning count of 14,281 acres.
At a “town hall” meeting at Mariposa County High School, regional and state fire officials shared a stark picture of the fire’s spread and behavior before working to answer dozens of questions from residents about containment and advisory statuses.
Justin McComb, operations chief for Cal Fire Team Five and a local battalion chief, recalled its start: “The fire quickly outflanked us. We couldn’t even attack it with the resources we had on hand.”
McComb said that after early success on the fire’s right flank, crews had managed to get a line down and around the fire back to Triangle Road.
United States Forest Service forest supervisor Dean Gould mentioned past fire scars from the Carstens and Ferguson fire providing some help to crews’ efforts: “That likely isn’t going to stop this, but it’s certainly going to slow it down and give us much more of a fighting chance to get the line in there, to get the treatments to get that portion of the incident wrapped up.”
Slightly more than 3,000 people were under evacuation, and another 1,900 people were on standby Sunday afternoon along the fire’s southwest and northeast flanks, said Natasha Fouts, a Cal Fire spokeswoman. At least 2,600 structures are under threat.
“Since we’re heading toward the end of July, it’s not going to be cooling down anytime soon,” Fouts said. “We’re just doing our best to put in lines and try to hold them.”
The blaze frayed the nerves and emotions of a region all too accustomed to wildfires this summer — having just endured the Washburn Fire 10-15 miles to the east in Yosemite’s famed Mariposa Grove. It came close to charring some of the park’s most popular giant sequoia trees and a historic nearby tourist town.
Evacuees of the latest firestorm were left with little to do but hope that their houses survived. Several said the flames appeared to move with unusual speed – fed by a landscape left aching for water after three years of historic drought.
“The flames were shooting 100 feet tall,” said David Lee, the kitchen manager at The Hideout Saloon in Mariposa, who fled his house Friday in unincorporated Mariposa County. “It was headed straight for us. That fire was by far the fastest I’ve ever seen. When it hit its roll, there’s nothing that was going to stop it.”
On Sunday, Lee, 55, assumed his house was destroyed. He also girded for the possibility of evacuating a second time from his friend’s house to the southeast of Mariposa, where he fled for safety with his fiancée.
“It’s just a matter of time,” Lee said. He added with a laugh: “I’ve got the important things: My health. My woman. My dog. My birth certificate.”
For some, the third day of the fire brought with it potentially grim news. Alix Frazer, 75, said a firefighter reported back to her son that the family’s business, the Highland House Bed & Breakfast, had burned to the ground after the flames became too intense for crews to stick around and defend it.
She figured as much when she left on Friday.
“There’s a ridge that we look at from our patio and you could see the fire, it was very hot,” Frazer said. “It’s just incredible how fast this fire moved. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The fire ignited Friday afternoon near State Route 140 and Carstens Road in the largely rural Midpines region of Mariposa County. But fueled by drought-stricken trees, it exploded on Saturday into a monster — sending a pyrocumulous cloud soaring 20,000 feet into the sky as it pushed further in the Sierra National Forest.
The flames remain a few miles northeast of the historic town of Mariposa — a town dating to California’s Gold Rush days, with buildings built in the 1850s. And the burn scar from another blaze – the 2018 Ferguson Fire – sat between the Oak Fire and Yosemite, potentially providing a natural fire break to possibly help slow the fire’s advance to the east.
“If we can get a fire push into an old burn scar, that does help us to make some progress,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Fouts said.
On Sunday afternoon, new evacuation orders were issued on opposite ends of the fire around 12:30 p.m. Sunday, forcing a new batch of residents to leave to the southwest and to the northeast. They included areas around Carlton, Silva and Shaffer roads, as well as Highway 49S. More notices for people to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice were issued on the west and east flanks of the fire, west of Highway 140 and east of Devil’s Gulch.
For people living just outside the evacuation zones, power outages appeared to be a frequent issue. More than 3,000 people — mostly in the city of Mariposa to the west of the blaze — were left without power Sunday afternoon, according to Pacific Gas & Electric.
Even so, there were signs of courage amid the chaos.
Unable to get back to her house to save her dogs, Viki Reeves, a border collie breeder in Jerseydale, received a helping hand from Marina Rider, a 19-year-old who rushed back to save her dogs.
“I just told them, ‘We just got to do this now,’” said Rider, a resident of Mariposa, who also recruited the help of neighbors Bodie and Manuel Rodriguez. As the three were loading the animals in, an enormous black plume of smoke was billowing about a mile away. Rider drove the dogs down southwest to Cathey’s Valley, where Viki is currently staying.
“Viki is family to me,” Rider said. “I know she would help me and my family, so I would drop anything for hers.”
Temperatures are expected to remain in the high 80s or low 90s and humidity levels are forecast to hover in the teens to start the week, according to the National Weather Service. The winds are expected to remain relatively calm, however.
“The real problem here is not with meteorological conditions, it’s with the amount of fuel from the pine beetle kill,” said Jeffrey Barlow, senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service, adding that a severe wind event earlier this year knocked down many dead or weakened trees. “There’s a lot of dead fuel and that’s what’s allowing this explosive type of fire behavior.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Saturday declared a state of emergency in Mariposa County and announced that the state had received a federal Fire Management Assistance Grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help offset the cost of fighting the blaze.
Slightly more than 2,000 people are assigned to fight the blaze, along with 225 fire engines and 58 dozers to cut fire lines ahead of the flames, according to Cal Fire. Seventeen helicopters have been tasked with dropping water on the blaze as well.
Smoke from the blaze choked much of the surrounding Sierra Nevada on Sunday morning. Hazardous air quality levels were reported along Highway 50 from Pollock Pines to South Lake Tahoe. And unhealthy conditions were seen from Donner Pass south to Mariposa.
Closer to the coast, smoke could become a problem for residents in the Bay Area on Monday as winds shift over the fire. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District issued an air advisory for Monday, noting that the smell of smoke may be apparent at higher elevations.