Fire destroys 12 homes near Yosemite National Park

July 29, 2008

Little relief from hot weather is expected this week as crews fight to contain a wildfire near an entrance to Yosemite National Park that has destroyed 12 homes and forced the evacuation of nearly 200 others.

The blaze had charred more than 26,000 acres — over 40 square miles — as wooded slopes ignited. Besides the homes destroyed, the fire had also engulfed 27 other buildings.

Officials ordered the evacuations of 195 homes under immediate threat, but some residents defied orders and stayed to protect their property. About 2,000 homes faced at least some danger from the fast-spreading flames, said Wayne Barringer, a state fire spokesman on the scene.

Most of the evacuated houses are in the town of Midpines, about 12 miles from the park.

A manager at the Yosemite Bug, a hostel in Midpines popular with European backpackers, said most guests had left over the weekend, but a few brave travelers stayed on Monday to try to spot Yosemite Valley’s celebrated granite peaks through the shroud of smoke.

“Some of them just don’t care, they just want to see the beauties of Yosemite,” said manager Carrie Kidwell. “We had guests in here this morning going to the park, and I advised them to take their things with them because we don’t know which way the wind’s going to shift between now and when they get back.”

Others stayed within the evacuation zone to battle the flames on their own.

“My house is about 100 yards from some fire right now and that’s freaking me out,” said John Romero, who answered his phone during a break from digging trenches and clearing brush with a little tractor.

Romero said his brother, Tony Romero, has an adjoining property with a 50,000-gallon swimming pool. The brothers planned to pump water from the pool to defend their homes if the fire advanced that far.

He said the air was thick with flying ash. “I feel like I’ve smoked two packs of cigarettes, and I don’t smoke,” Romero said.

Weather early this week is expected to bring little change from the hot, dry conditions that have plagued California for months. High temperatures are expected to remain in the low- to mid-90s, with low humidity and afternoon wind, National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Gudgel said early Monday.

“It’ll be a challenging fire for them to fight,” Gudgel said.

The fire was 10 percent contained Sunday evening.

State fire officials said the blaze was ignited by sparks created from firearms used for target practice, but would not elaborate.

Mary Ann Porter, a nursing assistant who lives in Midpines, left her goats, chickens and dog when she evacuated Sunday morning. Porter, who lives with her daughter and grandchildren, said the family took pictures and some computer hard drives.

“One of the blessings of living up here is that you adapt and learn to accept things,” she said at the evacuation center in Mariposa.

To protect firefighters battling flames beneath power lines, electricity was cut to a wide area fire officials said.

James Guidi Jr., a spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric, said the transmission line that fed power to Yosemite was destroyed by the fire on Saturday. Mobile generators were being set up to restore power to the whole park and about 500 customers nearby by Monday evening. In all, about 1,000 customers in the area had lost power, Guidi said.

Farther north, in Siskiyou County, authorities reported the death of a second firefighter in as many days. The victim died Saturday while scouting a blaze, Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Susan Gravenkamp said Sunday. On Friday, a firefighter was killed by a falling tree while battling another Northern California wildfire.

In Southern California, about 4,000 visitors were evacuated Sunday from the Los Angeles zoo, and California condors and vultures in the zoo were relocated, as a brush fire spread through nearby Griffith Park.

The 25-acre fire was contained in under three hours, and no injuries were reported.

Associated Press writers Jason Dearen in San Francisco and Garance Burke in Fresno contributed to this report.

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