National News

Deadly fire outside Yosemite doubles in size

MARIPOSA, Calif. -- As the Ferguson Fire swelled to 9,266 acres Monday, residents of Mariposa, the biggest town bordering Yosemite National Park, woke up to ash in the sky and fire rigs rumbling down Highway 49. Again.

Posted Updated

Lizzie Johnson
Michael Cabanatuan, San Francisco Chronicle

MARIPOSA, Calif. -- As the Ferguson Fire swelled to 9,266 acres Monday, residents of Mariposa, the biggest town bordering Yosemite National Park, woke up to ash in the sky and fire rigs rumbling down Highway 49. Again.

So, they pulled the ``Firefighters, Mariposa thanks you!'' signs from their storage rooms and garages. Officials propped a plywood board reading ``fire information'' with a few printed hand-outs stapled to it in a parking lot. Some shops closed, because tourists don't like to visit when it is smoky, and that's what they do when the tourists don't come.

It's the same routine, again and again.

One year ago to the day, the Detweiller Fire inched so close to Mariposa that the entire town had to be evacuated. It burned thousands of acres, and scorched the countryside bordering the community, but at least no one was killed.

On Monday, many residents were mourning the death of fire crewman Braden Varney, who authorities said was killed Saturday when his dozer flipped into a steep ravine near El Portal.

Crews retrieved the body of the 36-year-old Cal Fire veteran Monday afternoon from the mesh of mangled metal that was wedged in an area too remote for bulldozers and too precarious for an immediate extraction. Firefighters had stood sentinel over their colleague's body, coming and going in shifts, hiking in and out of the remote niche, in a revolving honor guard.

Later, a procession to transport the body to the Stanislaus County coroner's office drew area residents who paid their respects by lining up along the route.

Varney is survived by his wife, 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.

It seemed like everyone in Mariposa knew Varney -- as a former high school classmate, as a customer at the diner down the street, as a friend of his wife.

Just about everyone knows everyone here. And everyone is sick of the fires.

``It's so terrible, we can't breathe,'' said Kimi Jaekle, 32, of Sonora. ``Not great.''

Her sons, Landyn Harris, 7, and Grayson Hawkins, 9, held orange and blue balloons as they walked down the main drag, peering into the windows of closed shops. The Yosemite gift shop, the ice cream parlor, the alpaca clothing boutique. The kids had been staying with their grandparents in nearby Bootjack, but now they had to evacuate. The fire might come that way.

The Ferguson Fire, burning in steep, rugged terrain west of the park in Sierra National Forest, is threatening 108 structures. None were destroyed as of Monday afternoon.

Alex Olow, a Sierra National Forest spokesman, said the fire is burning south and west along the Merced River canyon. Firefighters are focusing on keeping the fire out of the park and away from small clusters of houses in the area.

``That's a big concern -- making sure the fire is not entering the park,'' Olow said.

More than 600 firefighters are battling the blaze, which started late Friday night. That number, like the acres burned, was expected to grow.

``It sucks, basically,'' said Nadean Andrade, 45, who had to evacuate last year and hopes not to do so again this year. ``I'm sad to say we are used to wildfires up here. I don't think there has been a summer without them in a long time.''

It's part of what makes Mariposa a tight-knit community, which she likes, but she said she'd prefer to meet her neighbors just for the sake of knowing them, and not because life might actually depend on it.

But a summer in the mountains without fire is unheard of at this point, so people here stick together.

``It's summertime in the mountains,'' Andrade said. ``We can't get away from stuff that happens up there.''

Nearby, Marjorie D'Esposito, 65, penned in a crossword behind the desk of the Sierra Artists Gallery, her lips painted pink and puckered in concentration. She volunteers here sometimes, when she visits from Monterey to see her son.

``It's irritating my eyes, definitely a lot of smoke down here,'' D'Esposito said in a heavy south Texas drawl. ``There's not that many people sticking around. It seems like all of California is on fire, doesn't it?''

Olow said high temperatures have helped fuel the fire and the warm weather is expected to continue, while the possibility of thunderstorms could also create unpredictable winds and change the path of the flames.

The fire has closed a section of Highway 140, one of the main routes into Yosemite, between Midpines and El Portal in Mariposa County in both directions.

Yosemite remains open and accessible through entrances on highways 120 and 41, but the closure of Highway 140 created long lines to enter the park Sunday, particularly at its southern gate on Highway 41.

Mandatory evacuations have been ordered for Clearing House, Mariposa Pines, Cedar Lodge/Savage's Trading Post and Sweetwater Ridge, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Residents in Jerseydale and Yosemite West, a community of homes just outside the park mostly rented to visitors, have been advised they could be ordered to evacuate.

Copyright 2023 San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved.