July 28, 2008

Fire Near Yosemite Claims 12 Homes, Hundred More Evacuated

FRESNO, Calif. _ A fast-moving wildfire near Yosemite National Park claimed a dozen homes and prompted hundreds more evacuations Sunday, as thousands of firefighters struggled to keep it from engulfing nearby communities.

Fire crews had built containment lines around 10 percent of the more than 26,000-acre fire by Sunday night, and officials said cooler conditions were aiding firefighting efforts.

Still, fire officials ordered additional evacuations of about 430 homes in the Greeley Hill area, in the Mykleoaks subdivision, and along Whitlock Road, French Camp Road and Grosjean Road, said Rick Benson, Mariposa County administrative officer. On Saturday, about 170 homes in the Midpines area were evacuated.

The so-called Telegraph fire, yet another in an already devastating California fire season, continued to threaten nearly 2,000 homes in the Mariposa County foothills that serve as Yosemite's western gateway.

The fire crept within two miles of Mariposa, where hospital officials prepared to evacuate 29 patients to Valley hospitals_or have firefighters surround the hospital to defend it if flames get close.

In Yosemite, hotels and restaurants got by on generators after power lines to Yosemite Valley were shut down because of the potential risk to firefighters working beneath the wires. A transmission wire that carries electricity to the park was then brought down by the fire, said Pacific Gas & Electric spokesman James Guidi Jr.

Three firefighters were treated for minor injuries, said Mike Mohler, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The fire had destroyed 12 homes and 27 outbuildings as of Sunday night, he said.

The fire threat led authorities Sunday to issue an evacuation warning to people living in the communities east of Highway 49 from Mykleoaks Road south to the Highway 140 junction and in communities west of Highway 140 from Mariposa north to Briceburg.

Nearly 2,000 firefighters, coming from as far as San Diego, were fighting the blaze Sunday.

The fire started Friday, apparently sparked by a target shooter, fire investigators said. It spread along the steep Merced River valley and exploded across 16,000 acres Saturday.

"It was a firestorm," said lifetime Midpines resident Eric McClard, 26, as he recalled his escape from his home after being ordered to evacuate within 30 minutes Saturday afternoon.

Neighbors told him Sunday that his home had been destroyed, though he hadn't confirmed that with state fire officials.

His mother, Kelly McClard, said she knew they were in danger when the sky turned black with smoke and flames crested the nearest hill.

"We had to use our headlights, because the smoke was so thick," she said. "It seemed like night, and then we got halfway down the street, and it was a beautiful day again."

Chris Moyle, a 23-year-old state firefighter stationed in Los Banos, said he and his fellow firefighters had faced "extreme fire behavior" as they worked to protect a home in the Midpines area through Saturday night and Sunday morning.

"Fire whirls, sheeting, high temperatures, steep terrain_the fire was making a big run," he said Sunday afternoon as he waited at the Mariposa County Fairgrounds to eat and perhaps catch some sleep after a 36-hour shift.

A haze of smoke hung over Mariposa on Sunday. To the north, a line of rising smoke that marked the fire's southern edge could be seen stretching from Mount Bullion in the west to Highway 140 in the east.

Ashes drifted like snowflakes across Mariposa, and falling ash was reported as far away as Clovis on Sunday. State authorities warned motorists to avoid driving on Highway 140 between Mariposa and Yosemite Sunday night because of low visibility and heavy fire vehicle traffic.

A Red Cross evacuation center at Mariposa Elementary School served 40 to 50 people, with 16 people staying the night Saturday, said Jim Rydingsword, Mariposa County director of human services.

At the evacuation center on Sunday, Cheryle Sigafoos, 60, sat and wondered whether the Midpines home she and her husband had just finished building in April had survived.

"Happily, Bill and I have done a very good job of clearing the property," the native Australian said. Their 2,500-gallon water tank on the property, and the fact that their home is made of concrete, also gave her hope.

But Sigafoos worried for her neighbors' homes and possessions, as well as their horses. In the short time given residents to evacuate, not all the animals could be put in trailers. Some neighbors set their horses free to escape danger on their own, she said.

"I got my personal papers that are important to us, a handful of shoes, some clothes and some photographs," Sigafoos said. "We're alive, and everything else is replaceable."

In Mariposa, residents worried that the fast-moving fire might sweep down on their tiny community of 1,800.

"I just know they don't have it contained yet, and the wind's picking up," said Dorrie Pereira, 27, a waitress at Sal's Mexican Restaurant.

The staff at John C. Fremont Hospital in Mariposa made plans Sunday to move 29 patients to hospitals in the Valley if officials gave the evacuation order.

"We can see the smoke and sometimes the flames from outside our emergency room," said Maureen Spacke, director of nursing.

Twenty-six of the patients, ranging in age from 80s to 101, are in the hospital's long-term care unit, and the other three are in the acute-care section.

"Some of the patients know what's happening," Spacke said. "The staff has been doing a good job of keeping them calm. Many say, 'What's new? What do you have to tell us?' Some of them are enjoying the excitement of it all."

Buses and ambulances would move the patients, Spacke said.

Officials also were considering an alternative to evacuation: Firefighters would surround the hospital and defend it from advancing flames, Spacke said.

"A lot of people are concerned about it," she said. "But evacuating has its dangers, too, especially with the elderly. They become confused. We're in a pickle, but the staff is doing really well. We're working toward a good outcome."

Julie Hagzeda, day manager at The Mariposa Lodge on Highway 49, said she's also worried about the fire's spread. But the influx of firefighters and evacuees into the town had filled the motel's rooms_the last reserved for the motel's owners, who had just been evacuated from their home, she said.

To protect firefighters battling flames beneath power lines, electricity was cut to a wide area, including the national park, fire officials said.

It remained unclear Sunday afternoon when Pacific Gas & Electric Co. might restore power to Yosemite Valley.

The utility was bringing two mobile generators to the area from Sacramento on Sunday and said they should provide power to about 560 mostly residential customers north of Mariposa by Monday afternoon, Guidi said. An additional 471 residential and commercial customers are in the area, and some_but not all_also could see their power restored Monday, Guidi said. He said he didn't know whether public places in Yosemite Valley were included.

When PG&E crews can repair the downed transmission line into Yosemite is uncertain, Guidi said: "It depends on the path of the fire and when it's safe to get in there. I was told it could be a couple of days."

Julie Chavez, Yosemite park ranger, said power was still flowing to the visitors center, grocery stores, restaurants and hotel lobbies, but not to hotel rooms.

"We're still running on the generators and we don't have any update on when the power is going to be coming on," she said. She said she doesn't know how long the generators can continue to operate.

Smoke from the fire reduced visibility in the park throughout the day. "This valley is a mile wide, and you can barely see across the valley," Chavez said.

Still, visitors continued to enter the park Sunday, though Chavez did not have any numbers. On a typical summer day, about 18,000 visitors come into the park, she said.

Some campers were leaving because of the fire, but Chavez said it was not a mass exodus. "There is more space available than we usually have this time of season because of the smoke."


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