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Deadly wildfire near Yosemite National Park almost doubles in size to 9,300 acres

Traffic backs up along the valley floor at Yosemite National Park on July 16, 2017. A firefighter was killed on Saturday, July 14, 2018, while battling a wildfire in the nearby Sierra National Forest. (Brian vander Brug/Los Angeles Times//TNS)

A wildfire burning west of Yosemite National Park doubled in size overnight while crews scrambled to set up defenses around nearby homes, officials said.

Just over 4,300 acres on Sunday, the Ferguson fire exploded overnight and grew to 9,266 acres Monday morning with only 2 percent of the blaze contained, the U.S. Forest Service reported.

The blaze has closed Highway 140 leading into the park and prompted evacuation orders in Briceburg, Cedar Lodge and Mariposa Pines north of Bear Clover. Crews have been stationed in Jerseydale and Yosemite West to protect homes, the Forest Service said.

Burning in steep, inaccessible terrain in many spots south of Highway 140 in the Merced River Canyon, firefighters are attacking the flames directly where they can but are otherwise focusing on setting up defenses and contingency lines where they plan to make stands against the flames.

To reduce the fire danger, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. on Sunday switched off power lines serving the area, affecting parts of Yosemite, El Portal and Foresta.

Braden Varney, a bulldozer operator with Cal Fire, died at the scene as crews battled the fire early Saturday, said Cal fire spokesman Scott McLean.

Varney, 36, of Mariposa had served in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit for a decade. He left behind a wife and two young children, according to the agency.

Varney’s bulldozer tumbled down a steep canyon while he was cutting away vegetation to protect Jerseydale in case the fire moved in that direction, Cal Fire spokesman Jeremy Rahn said Sunday afternoon. Varney had started at 8:30 p.m. Friday, and at some point radio contact with him was lost, Rahn said. He could not say whether the accident occurred in darkness or daylight, but he said it was not unusual for bulldozer operators to work in darkness.

“It’s common practice for the dozers to be working through the night,” Rahn said.

Varney was spotted from the air about 8 a.m. Saturday. A crew confirmed his death. But because of the inaccessible terrain, his body is not going to be recovered until Monday at the earliest.

McLean said Varney’s death is still under investigation. Varney was working on the line with teams trying to contain the fire when he was killed, McLean said. The area where firefighters were working is generally inaccessible, with rough and steep terrain.

Last year, firefighter Cory Iverson died of burns and smoke inhalation while battling the Thomas fire in Ventura County.

McLean said he couldn’t recall firefighter deaths coming so close together in California in many years.

“We’re talking very extreme fire behavior,” he said. “Everybody just needs to be so careful.”


© 2018 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.