FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — As wildfires rage throughout the western U.S., one California blaze in the rugged mountains outside of Yosemite National Park destroyed eight structures and forced thousands of nearby residents to flee their homes.
As of Tuesday evening, the fire had scorched 39 square miles (101 square kilometers), according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The blaze burning since Sunday was making its way to the hills on the edge of Mariposa, a town of about 2,000 people under a mandatory evacuation order.
Record rain and snowfall in the mountains this winter was celebrated for bringing California’s five-year drought to its knees, but it has turned into a challenge for firefighters battling flames feeding on dense vegetation, officials said.
“There’s ample fuel and steep terrain,” said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman DeeDee Garcia. “It makes firefighting difficult.”
The Northern California blaze is threatening at least 1,500 homes as well as powerlines that provide electricity to the park, officials said. The park remained open Tuesday but several roads frequented by tourists were closed.
The wildfire near Lake McClure, a reservoir about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Modesto, was 5 percent contained Tuesday evening as at least 1,400 firefighters battled it on the ground and from the air.
It’s burning near Highway 49, a historical route winding its way up California foothills of the western Sierra Nevada dotted with communities and landmarks that sprouted up during the state’s Gold Rush.
Joey Street, 49, a tree trimmer who’s lived in Mariposa for about 25 years, was among the people who were first evacuated to a Red Cross makeshift shelter set up at Mariposa Elementary School, which was later closed.
“(Firefighters) don’t have control of it now, so they’d better be safe than sorry,” Street told the Fresno Bee while waiting to be bused to an evacuation center in nearby Oakhurst.
The conditions significantly worsened from Monday to Tuesday, he said.
“Yesterday it didn’t look too bad, today you can’t even see Mt. Bullion right now, which tells me it’s getting closer,” Street said. “More ash falling from the sky tells me it’s getting closer.”
Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday declared an emergency, bolstering the state’s resources to battle the fire that he said has forced thousands of residents to flee and is expected to continue burning.
The cause of the blaze remained under investigation.
Smoke from the fire in Mariposa County drifted more than 150 miles away to Reno.
In a remote northeastern corner of Nevada, roughly 14 homes were damaged or destroyed by a wildfire that started Monday. Officials have lifted an evacuation advisory, allowing hundreds of people to return home and assess damage, authorities said.
Wind is driving the flames through invasive cheat grass — growing twice the norm, U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokesman Greg Deimel said.
“It is very thick, very dense,” he said. “You get the winds and the density of the grass, the fire just goes.”
Smith reported from Fresno, and Sonner reported from Reno.
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