Cal/OSHA Launches Probe Into Death of Dozer Driver During Yosemite-Area Blaze

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A view of the Ferguson Fire from El Portal in Mariposa County on July 14, 2018. (Blake Scott/National Park Service)

California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health has launched an investigation into the death Saturday morning of a firefighter whose bulldozer overturned while fighting a blaze in the Sierra National Forest, west of Yosemite National Park.

Braden Varney, 36, was killed fighting the Ferguson Fire after his bulldozer rolled over him while digging a fire line in rugged terrain. Cal/OSHA was notified Saturday of the fatality, according to spokesman Frank Polizzi.

Cal Fire, with the assistance of California Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 5, recovered Varney's body from the accident site Monday afternoon. It had taken days to reach him due to the "precarious location" and dangerous conditions of the accident site, Cal Fire Deputy Chief Scott McLean had said.

"What happens is because of the location of where the incident occurred, it’s impossible to access on foot, so they’re bringing in aircraft to help with that, helicopters," Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said before the recovery.

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Varney is survived by his wife, Jessica, 5-year-old daughter, Malhea, and 3-year-old son, Nolan, according to a statement released by Gov. Jerry Brown's office. Varney had been employed by Cal Fire for 10 years.

His was the second Cal Fire line-of-duty death in seven months. Last December, engineer Cory Iverson died fighting the Thomas Fire in Southern California. Varney's is the first death of a bulldozer operator in a California wildfire since private contractor Robert Reagan was killed in a rollover accident during the 2016 Soberanes Fire.

Forest Service spokesman Alex Olow said Sunday that Varney's death has been weighing heavily on firefighters working to contain the blaze.

"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."

The Ferguson Fire began early Friday evening. The blaze has grown to more than 9,200 acres and as of 2 p.m. Monday was only 2 percent contained. About 700 personnel are battling the blaze.

A Ferguson Fire infrared map from July 16, 2018. (Inciweb)

More fire engines were expected to arrive later Monday to try to stop the flames from reaching more than 100 homes and commercial buildings that are under threat, U.S. Forest Service spokesman John DeYoe said.

Mandatory evacuations remain in effect in the communities of Clearing House, Mariposa Pines, Cedar Lodge/Savage’s Trading Post and Sweetwater Ridge. The fire has forced the closure of a segment of Highway 140 about 2 miles east of Midpines to the Cedar Lodge area. Motorists are being advised to find alternative routes to their destinations.

Evacuation advisories (not an evacuation order) have been issued by the Forest Service in the following areas:

  • Lush Meadows Community
  • Ponderosa Basin community
  • Triangle Road from Jerseydale Road to Highway 49 South, including all side roads
  • Darrah Road from Triangle to Sherrod Road
  • East side of Highway 49S from Darrah Road to Harris Cut Off Road -- This includes Boyer Road, Woodland Area, Wass Road and Tip Top Road

High temperatures near 95 degrees and steep, inaccessible terrain have prevented fire crews from getting quick containment of the fire.

Smoke from the fire has also led to unhealthy levels of particulate matter near Yosemite National Park, and people with heart or lung disease, the elderly and children are advised against prolonged exertion.

The Red Cross has established a shelter at the New Life Christian Fellowship in Mariposa at 5089 Cole Rd.

KQED's Peter Jon Shuler, Jeremy Siegel, Ted Goldberg and the Associated Press contributed to this report.