A savage wildfire in the Sierra Nevada foothills raged uncontrollably on Sunday, forcing thousands of residents from their homes at the gateway to Yosemite National Park.
The Oak fire started on Friday near the town of Midpines, California, and exploded in size over the weekend.
Burning through dense and dry vegetation on the steep and rugged slopes of the region, the blaze was fueled by wind gusts and temperatures hovering around 100F (38C). The extreme nature of the fire meant it turned tall trees into matches and billowed billowing black smoke over Mariposa’s scenic historic center.
It remained at 0% containment Sunday night, despite a heavily armed firefighting effort. As of Friday, it had consumed more than 15,000 hectares. More than 3,000 people received an evacuation order.
More than 2,000 first responders from state and federal agencies battled the blaze, both from the ground and from the air. At least 10 houses and other buildings had been destroyed, with thousands still in their path.
“The growth of this fire is pretty amazing considering how quickly we got resources here,” said chief Mike van Loben Sels of the Madera Merced Mariposa unit of California’s Fire and Forestry Protection (Cal Fire). He noted that embers and fires ignited more than a mile before the fire. “We really threw everything on this thing from the start,” he said.
The fire is one of dozens of fires in the American West as the region braces for the peak months ahead. More than 5.5 million acres have been burned in the US this year, about 70% more than the 10-year average.
California, a state that has faced increasing threats from massive fires in recent years, has seen a lighter than usual start to the highest-risk season. Spring rains offered respite, delaying the start of what officials still fear will be another devastating fire year. The oak fire has shown how quickly things can change.
On Sunday, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for the area, allowing thousands of aid workers to be deployed.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
Thousands of residents and visitors were ordered to evacuate after the fire broke out, some fleeing so quickly they were unable to pack essential items. In the chaos, a local man named Ron, who refused to share his last name, left behind his medication and his dog Duke, an aging Labrador mix with a bad hip.
“When he was left behind, I couldn’t get anyone to help,” Ron said, adding that he’d had a stroke and is still getting disoriented. “But that’s my baby, man.”
Fire captains Shayon Ascarie and David Jessen came to Ron’s aid and rushed the man back to his evacuated hillside home as the fire crept closer. Helicopters zigzagged overhead and planes dropped fire retardants onto the slopes above as firefighters helped Ron get the terrified Duke into the back of their pickup and grab his pill boxes, before taking the duo back down the mountain to safety.
Jessen and Ascarie, who hail from different parts of California but were designated as partners for the incident, spent the rest of the morning roaming the cities posting the latest maps and answering questions for an audience hungry for information. In addition to providing vital information, major incident firefights often require rescues like Duke’s. “It’s part of the job, you’re just in the right place at the right time,” Jessen said, adding, “I have a feeling this won’t be the last.”
All over the town of Mariposa, people gathered around their A-frame information posts to share stories and express their gratitude for the ongoing firefighting efforts. Flags fluttered overhead, turning what might otherwise have been a breezy reprieve on a hot summer’s day into another ominous sign of fire looming nearby.
Down the highway, Steve’s Sportsman’s Café, a roadside restaurant, had become a de facto hub for locals, both those displaced by the fire and others watching and waiting. Outside, a motorcyclist shared videos of his harrowing close call to the fire. It spared his house, but claimed his shed, which had held precious keepsakes—his grandfather’s fishing rods and rifles. “Still, it could have been a lot worse,” he said, shaking his head as he entered the restaurant.
From behind the till, Tracy Heidseck handed out details on how power outages caused by the fire were wreaking havoc of their own kind. “We had already lost all our food in our fridge and our freezers,” she said, adding that her well had also dried up and there wasn’t even water to flush toilets. This was part of fire threats, which she said are looming year after year, and that is taking its toll. “I’m just exhausted,” she said. “I have no water and no electricity.”
But the community – and the restaurant – have come together during this difficult time. Steve Knauf, the owner of the restaurant, came running to offer his support. “There have been a lot of hugs and tears in the past few days,” he said, adding: “But it’s like one big family here.”