California wildfires near Yosemite as FEMA funds are authorized for fight

— The entire town of Mariposa — a Northern California enclave of about 2,000 residents west of Yosemite National Park — has been evacuated, along with thousands of others from the surrounding county as a wildfire continues to consume tens of thousands of acres in the area.

The Detwiler Fire, which is sending plumes of smoke through much of the region and into the Sierra Nevada, already has burned more than 46,000 acres and is just 7 percent contained. It is the latest flare in a string of large fires hitting California this month and is the second to qualify for funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It’s also the first fire this year to trigger an official “state of emergency” declaration from California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) as it adds to an early and particularly intense fire season that already has burned nearly 130,000 acres across the state, a significant increase over 2016.

The emergency declaration is partly due to the size of the fire and because it is threatening entire communities. It also has led to the closure of Highway 140, a popular entry point to Yosemite. So far the park itself is not in the line of fire.

“Yosemite is quite a bit east of where the fire’s at currently, but it’s at higher elevation, so anything could happen at this point,” said Scott McLean, a spokesperson for CalFire, the state fire agency.

The same highway was closed last month due to rock slides caused by the high volume of runoff from massive winter snows and heavy rain. The winter deluge also is playing a role in this fire, McLean said.

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“The winter rains promoted so much growth that the grass crop has really been supporting all these fires,” McLean said. “It’s the fuse to the fire. It’s like carpets of brush, not just a bush here or there. And it’s very dry because even with the wet winter, we’re still dealing with impacts of the drought, and we will be for several years to come.”

California is still covered with plants that didn’t survive the extended drought. Dead and dry, they’re perfect fuel for wildfires, especially when paired with the acres of new grass brought on by the winter.

This year’s sweltering heat also hasn’t helped. It was well above 100 degrees in Mariposa County on Wednesday, with low humidity. Firefighters typically will see gains at night, when temperatures drop and humidity increases, but that’s happening less and less. And the weekend is expected to bring temperatures that could rise to 109 degrees.

“I’ve lived in California for a very long time, and I’ve never seen temperatures this high this frequently, or for these sorts of prolonged periods,” McLean said. “You’re seeing 15-day stretches of 100-degree or higher temperatures. This fire is burning as hot and heavy during the night as it would during the day.”

That means firefighters, including McLean’s son, are working day and night. “My son’s had two hours of sleep in two days,” McLean said. “It’s just a perfect storm of factors: the weather, the terrain, the fuel. It’s not good.

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Another factor: Humans. Ninety-five percent of wildland fires are started by people, and just about 7 percent are arson, McLean said. He rattled off a list of potential causes: parking a vehicle on dry grass, trimming brush at the wrong time of day and hitting a rock that sparks.

Mariposa resident Noel Morrison has been evacuating people and pets for friends and family since evacuation orders came down Tuesday.

“It’s the summer and people are out of town, so I’ve had a lot of friends asking for help with their animals,” Morrison said, noting that she evacuated to a town about 30 miles away. “I’m staying in Oakhurst with a friend, and her house is starting to look like Noah’s Ark.”

Between trips back and forth, Morrison, who works with the Yosemite Mariposa Tourism Bureau, also is helping to field questions from local businesses impacted by the evacuation order.

“A lot of visitors to Yosemite stay in and near Mariposa, and all the hotels had to evacuate yesterday, both because of the fire and because we lost power,” she said.

The cause of the Detwiler fire is still unknown, and with high winds and particularly hot temperatures forecast, firefighters expect to be tackling the blaze for a while. Yosemite remains open, though CalFire is cautioning people to stay indoors as much as possible due to the smoke.

“We’ve already got firefighters that have been on duty for 25 days straight,” McLean said. “And we’re not out of the woods yet, we just started. Usually our large fires are in September or October.”

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