Deadly Fire closes the key route to Yosemite National Park


A forest fire killing a Californian firefighter grew rapidly, forcing the closure of a key route into Yosemite National Park as crews fought on Sunday with fierce conditions.

The so-called Ferguson Fire, which broke out on Friday, seared nearly seven square miles (18 square kilometers) of dry shrubs along steep, secluded hills on the western edge of the park. It was largely out of control and officials shut off power from many areas, including the Yosemite Valley, as a precautionary measure.

Guests were told to leave Yosemite Cedar Lodge on Saturday as flames climbed the slopes and the air got thicker.

"You can not see anything, it's so smoky outside, it's crazy," said receptionist Spencer Arebalo, one of the few employees who stayed at the popular hotel in the park.

He said it was unreal to see the property empty at the height of the tourist season.

"We are counting on being closed for at least another day," said Arebalo.

Evacuations were also scheduled in rural communities outside the park, and people in nearby lodges and motels should agree to leave when flames approached. A section of State Route 140 in Yosemite has been closed and motorists have been asked to find alternate routes.

Temperatures of up to 95 degrees (35 degrees Celsius) and inaccessible terrain made it difficult for the crews to stop the flames, said Captain Mike Seymour, Fire Department at US Forest Service.

Heavy user Braden Varney, 36, died on the fire line early Saturday, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Safety said. Varney drove a bulldozer to fill a gap in the vegetation to keep the flames from escaping into a nearby community, according to Cal Fire Fire Chief Nancy Koerperich.

Varney's body is unlikely to be recovered until Monday, as he finds himself in a "precarious location" and weekend conditions were too dangerous, said Cal Fire's Deputy Chief, Scott McLean.

Wildfire is one of several burning across the state and among 56 major brands operating in the US, most of them in the American West, a region that is struggling with drought and heat.

A fire near the California-Oregon border that killed a 72-year-old resident and injured three firefighters was almost completely contained after more than 155 square kilometers of dry bush fires had been burnt.

The crews had full control over a stubborn fire that burned 368 square kilometers (362 square kilometers) and destroyed a total of 20 buildings in Yolo and Napa. Investigators said that an electric cattle fence that was not installed properly lit the flames.

Investigators tried to find out more about Varney's death on Saturday during the fire near Yosemite, but they believe he worked his way out of the fire area after his death, Koerperich said.

"This will surely be devastating for his family and for those of us who call his family here at Cal Fire," she said.

Varney had worked for Cal Fire for 10 years. His father also worked as a Cal Fire machine operator. He survives his wife Jessica; Daughter Malhea, 5; and son Nolan, 3.

Governor Jerry Brown ordered flags in the California Capitol to be flown with half staff to "honor a man who dedicated his life to the protection of his California counterparts."


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