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Fire Devastates Area Near Yosemite

July 30, 2008

MARIPOSA, Calif. _ Her little brown cabin in the woods was gone, reduced to ash and rubble by a wave of flames, but Mary Briggs had no time to be consoled. Her mind was elsewhere.

Down the road, in another part of the woods near Mariposa, Briggs was needed at the care where she worked. Sixteen elderly men and women, some more than a century old, were waiting to be rescued to safer ground.

The Telegraph fire was approaching, and there was no time that Saturday afternoon for Briggs to dwell on her losses.

She immersed herself in her work, finding refuge with her daughter since the fire started Friday. But after days of focusing her energy to help her elderly clients, Briggs, 52, arrived Tuesday at the Red Cross shelter to finally seek help.

“I’m at a loss. I’m barely hanging in there,” she said, her voice steady, almost without emotion. “I can’t think straight right now.”

Her eyes appeared vacant, her face stoic.

She had no time to pack, she said. Fur from her dog and cats clung to the black blouse she had been wearing for days. “I have nothing. I don’t even have a toothbrush.”

She picked through the donated clothes at the shelter. Nothing fit.

“I don’t have a choice but to keep going. I have to work,” she said. Her care home clients are like an extended family.

“They need me,” she said. “And to keep sane, too, I need them.”

Inside the shelter _ set up at Mariposa Elementary School _ there were hugs and words of gratitude and of consolation. A half-eaten Danish and a slice of watermelon rested on a Styrofoam plate in front of Briggs.

In the distance, mostly out of view of townsfolk in Mariposa, the Telegraph fire continued to march across steep, wooded terrain. By Tuesday, it had devoured 25 homes. At least 300 other homes were in immediate danger, another 1,000 were on high alert and 4,000 more considered threatened by the 30,000-acre blaze.

Yosemite National Park remained open, and visitors beheld nature’s wonders, even if through a smoky haze that partly obscured vistas of El Capitan, Half Dome and other popular attractions.

In some parts of the park, visitors went without electricity and hot showers _ as have the thousands of employees who live and work at the park.

For those workers who live in communities outside the park’s boundaries, the days since the fire started have been tense.

On her way home over the past few nights, Kari Cobb, a national park employee, keeps watch on the horizon, where the mountaintops meet the sky, looking for the glow of fire as she approaches her home in the community of El Portal.

“The glow will tell you when it’s time to leave,” said Cobb, who works as a public information officer for the national park.

The fire is four miles from El Portal, and no evacuations have been ordered in her community _ but Cobb and her neighbors have been put on notice that the fire is unpredictable. A gust of wind could send flames marching in a different course.

“It’s been a choice of coming to work or staying home to make sure my home won’t burn down,” Cobb said.

“All I day, I talk about this fire. When I get home, it gives me peace of mind _ that my house is still there,” Cobb said.

For Briggs, there is nothing left. She can’t even find the words. “I live on …” She stopped herself. “Excuse me, I lived on West Whitlock,” she said. “I have to remember I don’t have a house anymore.”

She described her house as a “cute, cute little cabin in the woods” that she shared with her 14-year-old granddaughter, whose birthday was Friday, the day a bullet sparked the horrendous blaze.

She had recently bought furniture. She hung ornamental fish from her trees. There were bats in the attic.

Everything in the home appeared destroyed. The metal roof wilted under the heat, collapsing on a pile of ash. Everything was gray.

“I have nothing left,” she told a Red Cross counselor.

In the starkness, however, her flagpole had somehow survived. Atop it, the only vibrant colors in this surreal scene whipped in the breeze.

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(c) 2008, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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