A ferocious wildfire in the Sierra Nevada foothills raged on Sunday, forcing thousands of residents from their homes at the entrance to Yosemite National Park.
The Oak Fire started Friday near the town of Midpines, Calif., and exploded over the weekend.
Burning through dense, dry vegetation on the area’s steep, rugged hills, the blaze was fanned by gusty winds and temperatures that hovered around 100F (38C). The extreme nature of the blaze meant it turned tall trees into matchsticks and sent billowing black smoke over the picturesque historic downtown Mariposa.
It remained at 0% containment on Sunday evening, despite a very significant firefighting effort. Since Friday, he had consumed more than 15,000 acres. More than 3,000 people were under evacuation orders.
More than 2,000 first responders from state and federal agencies were battling the blaze, attacking it from both the ground and the air. At least 10 homes and other structures had been destroyed, and thousands of people remained in danger in its path.
“The growth of this fire is pretty amazing considering how quickly we had resources here,” said Chief Mike van Loben Sels of the Madera Merced Mariposa Unit of California Fire and Forest Protection ( Cal Fire). He noted embers and spot fires igniting more than a mile before the blaze. “We really threw everything at this thing from the start,” he said.
The blaze is one of dozens burning across the American West as the region prepares for months of peak fire danger yet to come. More than 5.5 million acres have already burned in the United States this year, about 70% more than the 10-year average.
California, a state that in recent years has faced increasing threats from giant wildfires, had had a lighter than normal start to its most at-risk season. Spring rains have offered respite, delaying the start of what authorities still fear will be another devastating fire year. The Oak fire showed how quickly things can change.
On Sunday, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in the region, allowing the deployment of thousands of rescuers.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
Thousands of residents and visitors were ordered to evacuate after the fire broke out, with some fleeing so quickly they were unable to carry essentials. In the chaos, a local man named Ron, who declined to share his last name, left behind his medication and his dog Duke, an aging Labrador with a bad hip.
“When he was abandoned I couldn’t find anyone to help me,” said Ron, adding that he had suffered a stroke and was still disoriented. “But that’s my baby, man.”
Fire captains Shayon Ascarie and David Jessen came to Ron’s aid, returning him to his evacuated hillside home as the fire got closer. Helicopters zigzagged overhead and planes dropped fire retardants on the slopes above as firefighters helped Ron place the terrified Duke in the back of their van and grab his pillboxes, before to bring the duo back to safety on the mountain.
Jessen and Ascarie, who come from different parts of California but were named as partners for the incident, spent the rest of the morning driving through towns to view the latest maps and answer questions from an information-hungry audience. . In addition to providing critical information, important firefights often require rescues like Duke’s. “It’s part of the job, you’re just in the right place at the right time,” Jessen said, adding, “I have a feeling it won’t be the last.”
Across the town of Mariposa, people crowded around their A-frame news stations to share stories and offer their thanks for the ongoing firefighting effort. Flags flapped overhead, turning what might otherwise have been a windy reprieve on a hot summer day into another ominous sign that fire was imminent.
Further up the freeway, a roadside restaurant called Steve’s Sportsman’s Café had become a de facto hub for locals, both those displaced by the fire and others watching and waiting. Outside, a motorcyclist shared videos of his harrowing contact with the fire. He spared his house but claimed his shed, where priceless memorabilia – his grandfather’s fishing rods and guns – had been housed. “Nevertheless, it could have been much worse,” he said, shaking his head as he entered the restaurant.
Behind the cash register, Tracy Heidseck provided details of how the power outages caused by the fire did their own kind of damage. “We’ve already lost all our food in our fridge and freezers,” she said, adding that her well had also dried up and there wasn’t even water to flush the toilet. ‘water. It was part of the fire threats, which she says weigh heavily year after year, and are taking their toll. “I’m just exhausted,” she said. “I have no water or electricity.”
But the community — and the restaurant — came together during this difficult time. Restaurant owner Steve Knauf approached to offer his support. “There’s been a lot of hugs and tears over the past few days,” he said, adding, “But, it’s like a big family here.”