California’s biggest wildfires this year exploded to over 26 square miles Monday, forcing thousands to flee remote mountain communities as the blaze near Yosemite National Park burned out of control amid sweltering temperatures and low humidity.
The Oak Fire erupted Friday in Mariposa County, near the small town of Midpines. Firefighters, meanwhile, made progress against the Washburn Fire that’s 12 miles east near Yosemite that threatened the park’s largest and most iconic sequoia grove.
The Washburn Fire was 87% contained after two weeks of firefighting, and the Oak Fire was 10% contained as of Monday, according to Cal Fire. Crews “made good headway” against the Oak Fire on Sunday and “fire activity was not as extreme” as it has been in previous days.
The more than 2,500 firefighters battling the blaze were expected to encounter tough conditions including low humidity, high temperatures and steep terrain, Cal Fire said. The agency also dispatched 17 helicopters, 281 fire engines, 66 dozers and 46 water tenders to fight the Oak Fire.
“It’s hot out there again today,” Cal Fire spokesperson Natasha Fouts said Sunday. “And the fuel moisture levels are critically low.”
Light winds were blowing embers ahead into tree branches “and because it’s so dry, it’s easy for the spot fires to get established and that’s what fuels the growth,” Fouts said. Smoke drifted about 200 miles north toward Lake Tahoe and the same distance west into the San Francisco Bay Area, pollution control officials said.
By Monday morning, the blaze had destroyed seven single residence structures, according to Cal Fire. Pacific Gas & Electric said on its website that more than 2,600 homes and businesses in the area had lost power as of Monday, with no indication when it would be restored.
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California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for Mariposa County because of the fire, and over 6,000 people in the remote Sierra Nevada foothills were evacuated. A handful of residents defied the orders and stayed behind, said Adrienne Freeman with the U.S. Forest Service.
“We urge people to evacuate when told,” Freeman said. “This fire is moving very fast.”
The cause of the fire is under investigation, Cal Fire said.
California has experienced increasingly larger and deadlier wildfires in recent years with climate change warming and drying the western U.S. over the past three decades. Wildfires will likely become even more unpredictable, frequent, and destructive, scientists have warned.
Kim Zagaris, an advisor with the Western Fire Chiefs Association, which maps wildfires across the country, said the state is experiencing a fairly typical ramp-up to what is sure to be an active fire year once California’s infamous Santa Ana and Diablo wind events begin in September.
“We’ve been fortunate. We’re not quite as far along as we were at this time last year,” Zagaris said. “But the fuels, the vegetation, are much dryer than they were last year. It’s so dry out there.”
Contributing: N’dea Yancey-Bragg; The Associated Press
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