USA — A wildfire burning near one of the main entrances to Yosemite National Park destroyed at least 12 homes and 27 outbuildings in and near the town of Midpines, and burned more than 26,000 acres of brush and woodlands, authorities said Sunday.
With smoke and ashes blanketing much of the area, residents have been evacuated from nearly 500 homes, and authorities have cut power to the park. Three firefighters had sustained minor injuries in the fire, which was 10% contained as of 8 p.m., according to Mike Mohler, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. About 2,000 homes could potentially be threatened.
The blaze, which has been dubbed the Telegraph fire, appeared to have begun late Friday when two men and two women went into remote woods to shoot rocks with a rifle, authorities said Sunday. A bullet, investigators said, may have fragmented on a rock and cast a spark into dry brush.
“This time of year, with the dry conditions, just one spark can become a large fire,” fire agency spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
Mariposa County Sheriff Brian Muller said Sunday evening that officials had interviewed the people who were shooting. The man who fired the shot has provided a statement identifying himself to authorities.
No arrests had been made, but the investigation is still underway, he said. Though it does not appear that the shooting was illegal — it appears to have been done on property owned by the family of one of the people present — behavior that is deemed reckless could result in charges, Muller said. He declined to identify the four people who were present when the fire began.
“It wasn’t intentional,” Muller said. “But there could have been some negligence.”
Temperatures neared 90 degrees Sunday and humidity was low. Many of the areas near the fire had not burned in a century, leaving a large amount of fuel lining the steep and rugged terrain. Firefighters reported 100-foot flames in some areas.
Vicki Currier, 53, who works at a boutique in Mariposa, said that when the fire started, it looked “as if an atomic bomb went off.”
“It’s scary,” she said Sunday evening.
The flames were advancing Sunday evening on two fronts, one to the east and one to the south, toward Mariposa, which has about 1,800 residents and is the largest town in the area.
About 170 homes were evacuated in and around the town of Midpines, where about 600 people live. More than 300 homes were evacuated in French Camp, northwest of Mariposa, and in populated areas near Grosjean Road, Muller said. Briceburg, on California 140, is also in danger.
Some of the evacuated homes are only a mile and a half from Mariposa, Muller said.
“Right now, it’s not looking too good,” he said.
Many visitors pass through Mariposa en route to the western entrance of Yosemite, known as the Arch Rock entrance. Ash had been raining on the Mariposa area for more than a day, and the wind appeared poised to push the flames away from the park and into more populated areas, said Lori Mertens, an employee at the Mariposa County Visitors Center.
“It’s coming toward town,” Mertens said. “It’s got people around here — especially the evacuees — very nervous.”
The 2,000 or so firefighters were equipped with 189 engines and 39 bulldozers. Aircraft, including military cargo planes, were dropping flame retardant. Authorities said that as many as 1,800 firefighters could arrive soon.
The response to the fire is so rapid and fluid, firefighters “don’t even check in,” said Forestry and Fire Protection Capt. Gary Mosely. “They just get sent straight to the fire line.”
To protect firefighters battling flames beneath power lines, electricity was cut to a wide area, including the national park. But the fire had not spread inside the boundaries of the park, said Julie Chavez, a park interpreter. Visibility inside the park was reduced and air quality had suffered, Chavez said, but the park was open and almost all visitor facilities were running, with generators providing power as needed.
Park officials were unable Sunday to estimate the number of people inside the park. About 18,000 people, however, visit on a typical summer day.
Overall, 3 1/2 million people visited Yosemite in 2007. The 1,169-square-mile park was established in 1890.
Julie Hadzega, manager of the Mariposa Lodge, said the hotel was fully booked before the fire. She said some people had called to cancel their reservations because of the blaze, but fire officials and evacuees were expected to take any vacancies. Authorities also were hoping to let weary firefighters rest and bathe in dormitories at a conference center in nearby Oakhurst.
The historic Ahwahnee Hotel, which offers views of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls and Glacier Point, has been relying on a power generator since Saturday afternoon. But a hotel employee said most guests were staying put and for every canceled reservation, another quickly filled the spot. Hotel rooms are often reserved a year in advance.
“I’m just being totally honest about the air quality, which is not good for hiking, small children or people who have asthma,” said Barbara Cash, the hotel’s switchboard operator. “Otherwise, people are still here. They’re having a good time. There’s a lot of things going on in the park.”
Cash acknowledged that the fire had made long hikes and clear pictures of Half Dome difficult. Even so, rafting and wading are still possible. “We still have a beautiful park. You can see lots of wildlife,” Cash said. “If they’re just coming here to stay in a historic hotel and they’re not planning any major hiking or climbing excursions, then it’s the right time to come.”
Hannah Key, 18, began working as a National Park Service firefighter only last week — and will be on the front lines of the fire this morning. Key lives in Mariposa and was evacuated from her home on Grosjean Road on Sunday morning. She grabbed her clothes, photo albums and sentimental possessions. The most important item, she said, was her only photograph of her father, who died in a motorcycle accident eight years ago.
“It’s my first big fire,” she said. “I’m nervous because it’s my family — my home, where I grew up — that I’m defending.”
Outside the River Rock Inn in Mariposa, 51-year-old Ken Manly of Midpines said he woke up at 3:30 a.m. Saturday to authorities scouring his neighborhood to tell residents that they might have to evacuate. About 12 hours later, “the wind shifted and it got really dark,” Manly said. Authorities told him to leave.
He first went to a friend’s house in Mariposa, but today the friends left, seeking a safer area.
“We don’t know what to do,” he said. “We can’t go home, but we don’t want to go too far.”
Manly, an electrician, has lived in Midpines for 25 years.
“You have small fires occasionally,” he said. “But not this.”
Shelters for residents were open in Mariposa and Greeley Hill.
A firefighter died this weekend after being struck by a tree while fighting a separate blaze west of Redding.