WAWONA, Calif. (AP) — A fast-moving wildfire near Yosemite National Park exploded in size on Saturday into one of California’s largest wildfires of the year, prompting evacuation orders for thousands and shutting off power for more than 2,000 homes and businesses.
The Oak Fire started Friday afternoon southwest of the park near the town of Midpines in Mariposa County and had grown rapidly to 10.2 square miles (26.5 square kilometers) by Saturday morning, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. . It broke out as firefighters made progress against a previous blaze that burned to the edge of a forest of giant redwoods in the southernmost part of Yosemite Park.
Evacuation orders went into effect Saturday for more than 6,000 people living several miles away in the sparsely populated rural area, said Daniel Patterson, a spokesman for the Sierra National Forest.
“Explosive fire behavior is a challenge for firefighters,” Cal Fire said in a statement Saturday morning describing the Oak Fire’s activity as “extreme with frequent runs, spot fires and group fires.”
By Saturday morning, the fire had destroyed 10 residential and commercial buildings, damaged five others and threatened another 2,000 buildings, Cal Fire said. The fire caused numerous road closures, including a closure of Highway 140 between Carstens Road and Allred Road, blocking one of the main routes into Yosemite.
More than 400 firefighters, helicopters, other aircraft and bulldozers fought the blaze, which was located in a sparsely populated, largely rural area of the Sierra Nevada foothills, said Daniel Patterson, a spokesman for the Sierra National Forest.
Hot weather, low humidity and bone-dry vegetation caused by the worst drought in decades fueled the fire and challenged firefighters, Patterson said. California has seen increasingly larger and deadlier wildfires in recent years as climate change has made the West much warmer and drier over the past 30 years. Scientists have said the weather will remain more extreme and wildfires will be more frequent, destructive and unpredictable.
“The fire is moving fast. This fire yesterday threw glowing coals up to 2 miles long,” Patterson said. “These are exceptional fire conditions.” The cause of the fire was being investigated.
Pacific Gas & Electric said on its website that more than 2,600 homes and businesses in the area had lost power as of Friday afternoon and there was no indication of when it would be restored. “PG&E has no access to the affected equipment,” the utility said.
An elderly man without shoes who tried to flee the fire on Friday crashed his sedan into a ditch in a closed area and was helped by firefighters. He was driven safely out of the area and appeared to be uninjured. Several other residents remained in their homes Friday night as the fire continued to burn nearby.
Meanwhile, firefighters have made significant progress against a wildfire that started in Yosemite National Park and burned out in the Sierra National Forest.
The Washburn Fire was contained 79% on Friday after burning approximately 19.4 square kilometers of forest. It was one of the largest fires of the year in California, along with the Lost Lake Fire in Riverside County, which was completely under control in June 14 square miles.
The fire broke out on July 7, forcing the south entrance to Yosemite to close and evacuate the community of Wawona when it burned on the edge of Mariposa Grove, home to hundreds of giant redwoods, the world’s largest trees by volume.
According to the park website, Wawona Road will reopen on Saturday for the time being.
Gecker contributed from San Francisco.