Wildfire Near Yosemite Quadruples in Size, Brings Smoky Conditions to Valley

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A view of Yosemite Falls just after noon on Sunday, July 15, 2018, with haze from the Ferguson Fire burning nearby. (Yosemite Conservancy)

A deadly wildfire burning in the Sierra National Forest, west of Yosemite National Park, has scorched more than 4,000 acres of dry brush along rugged terrain, and is causing smoky, hazy conditions in Yosemite Valley.

The Ferguson Fire, which ignited late Friday evening, is being fueled by hot conditions and steep terrain, according to fire officials. It was only 2 percent contained as of early Sunday afternoon.

"The fire is burning in a very steep terrain," said Sierra National Forest spokesman Alex Olow. "And given that, there is what we call roll out, which causes embers to roll down, which catches areas that haven't burned yet, and of course they start to burn, which can cause the fire to grow in size."

Olow said high temperatures Saturday evening — hovering near 90 degrees Fahrenheit — also contributed to difficult conditions overnight, and those high temperatures remain a concern for firefighters as they continue to battle the blaze.

"Not only are they fighting a fire where they're getting fairly close and experiencing that heat, but they're also exerting and expending energies in extremely hot weather," he said. "So safety is always a concern for the firefighters."

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Early Saturday morning, 36-year old Heavy Fire Equipment Operator Braden Varney died battling the blaze, when his bulldozer overturned.

"That does affect the morale of firefighters," Olow said. "But we also know that we have a job that needs to get done, so we do work together to do that. We'll take the time for mourning when we get the job done, even though it is on the [minds] of everybody as they are out there working."

Olow said fire officials are working to make sure no more casualties occur with firefighters keeping an eye on one another at all times while they battle the wildfire.

According to Yosemite National Park officials, a stretch of California Highway 140 into the park remains closed due to the blaze, and they're urging visitors to find alternate routes.

Yosemite visitors should expect delays getting into the park due to the California Highway 140 closure.

"We've had some increased volume of traffic at the other gates because traffic has been rerouted," said Yosemite National Park spokeswoman Jamie Richards. "It's July in Yosemite, so traffic is already going to be busy, and with one of our main entrances closed, it's added to the volume at the other entrances."

Officials shut off electricity to many areas as a safety precaution on Saturday, including Yosemite Valley — a popular area for tourists — forcing key areas in the park to rely on generator power. But park officials said on Sunday that commercial power has been restored to many areas.

"Most of the Valley is back on commercial power," Richards said. "There may be places in the park that are still on generators, but Yosemite National Park is prepared for power outages for a variety of reasons, so you didn't notice any interruption in your day."

Richards said because the fire has grown, visitors should be aware that there are impacts from smoke in the park. "If you are a visitor in Yosemite Valley, visibility has been impacted by smoke and haze in the air," she said.

A view of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park just after noon on Sunday, July 15, 2018, with haze from the Ferguson Fire burning nearby.
A view of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park just after noon on Sunday, July 15, 2018, with haze from the Ferguson Fire burning nearby. (Yosemite Conservancy)
A view of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park just after noon on Sunday, July 15, 2018, with haze from the Ferguson Fire burning nearby.
A view of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park just after noon on Sunday, July 15, 2018, with haze from the Ferguson Fire burning nearby. (Yosemite Conservancy)

Park officials are also warning visitors with health issues to take note of the fire. "If you have any health issues related to smoke or respiratory issues, you may want to think about minimizing your strenuous activities outdoors if you're in the valley," Richards said.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District on Sunday issued a health cautionary statement for Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, Fresno and Tulare counties due to the fire.

Richards said Yosemite officials are giving resources toward the firefighting effort and continue to monitor the situation carefully.

"We are aware of living in fire country, and we have really highly trained professionals that are ready for the call," she said.

"This is life in the Sierra Nevada."

This post has been updated to include the health cautionary statement issued for several counties.