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California Wildfires: Oakhurst Threat Eases, North State Battle Continues

| August 20, 2014
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A night view of the Happy Camp Complex fire, burning in Klamath National Forest east of Crescent City. (U.S. Forest Service)

A night view of the Happy Camp Complex fire, burning in Klamath National Forest east of Crescent City. (U.S. Forest Service)

Update, 3 p.m. Wednesday: Firefighting officials say they’re making progress toward containing two fires that have threatened communities in the southern Sierra this week.

Cal Fire says the Junction Fire outside Oakhurst, which forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes on Monday, is now 40 percent contained. The fire has burned 612 acres and destroyed eight structures.

Federal and Kern County officials say the Way Fire, near Lake Isabella in the mountains northeast of Bakersfield, has grown to nearly 3,400 acres (from 3,200 Tuesday) and is 15 percent contained. The fire destroyed or seriously damaged eight homes and 10 outbuildings.

Far to the north, firefighters are still struggling to gain containment of a pair of lightning-sparked fires that have broken out since late July.

The Whites Fire is part of a group of fires that started about 40 miles west of Mount Shasta on July 31. Four of the so-called July Complex fires in the Klamath National Forest are under control or nearly completely contained. But the 30,500-acre Whites Fire is just 25 percent contained. Residents have been ordered from their homes in seven remote communities, including Sawyers Bar, Eddy Gulch and Little North Fork.

A second group of lightning-caused fires, the Happy Camp Complex, has burned about 9,800 acres since igniting on Aug. 11. The biggest of the blazes is the Frying Pan Fire, burning south of the Klamath River about 45 miles east of Crescent City. The Frying Pan blaze, which has consumed 8,100 acres, is 10 percent contained. Another fire in the complex, the Falkstein, has burned 1,300 acres with no containment.

Elsewhere, firefighters have gained nearly complete containment on a series of fires, most caused by lightning, that broke out in late July across Northern California. Those include the Eiler and Bald fires, which burned a total of about 72,000 acres between Mount Lassen and the town of Burney.

Update, Tuesday 5:45 p.m.: Cal Fire has revised the estimate on the size of the Junction Fire just outside Oakhurst from 1,200 acres to 612 acres. It credits “more accurate mapping” of the fire for the revision and says the fire is about 30 percent contained. The blaze has destroyed eight structures.

The Madera County Sheriff’s Office reported that evacuation orders have been lifted for some areas and that Highway 41, the southern route into Yosemite National Park and a major commercial thoroughfare for the Oakhurst area, has been reopened.

To the south, the acreage estimate has not changed on the Way Fire burning near Lake Isabella. The blaze covered about 3,200 acres as of early Tuesday. As many as a dozen structures have been reported burned.

There’s no estimate of containment on the Way Fire yet. The several hundred firefighters who were first to respond were assigned mostly to protect homes as the fire burned toward the community of Wofford Heights.

Update, Tuesday 7:35 a.m.: Madera County officials and Cal Fire say the status of the Junction Fire, burning on the outskirts of Oakhurst, remains largely unchanged this morning. Still 1,200 acres burned. Still no containment. Eight structures destroyed and hundreds of others threatened. Highway 41, the southern route into Yosemite National Park, remains closed.

Further south, meantime, in the Kern County foothills northeast of Bakersfield, the Way Fire near the community of Wofford Heights has burned 3,000 acres and an undetermined number of homes.

The fire began as a small brush fire early Monday afternoon but quickly blew up into a major blaze. There was no estimate of containment early Tuesday.

Original post (11 p.m. Monday): A fast-moving wildfire at the southern gateway to Yosemite National Park is threatening hundreds of homes near the town of Oakhurst and briefly sparked fears of a massive propane blast Monday afternoon.

The Madera County Sheriff’s Office reported Monday evening that the Junction Fire, centered near the intersection of Highways 41 and 49 outside Oakhurst, has burned 1,200 acres with no containment. About 500 homes are immediately threatened, officials say, and about 1,500 residences have been ordered evacuated. Shelters have been set up in the community of Coarsegold, south of Oakhurst. The cause of the fire, which started early Monday afternoon, is undetermined.

The blaze forced the closure of Highway 41 into the national park. The main alternate for travelers from the south and west is Highway 140 by way of Merced and Mariposa.

The fire comes nearly exactly a year after the outbreak of the catastrophic Rim Fire west of Yosemite, a blaze that burned 257,000 acres, and three weeks after the El Portal and Dark Hole fires, which burned a total of about 5,000 acres, forced evacuations on the park’s western border.

Madera County sheriff’s officials say the Junction Fire had burned eight structures. At one point, the blaze threatened a propane supplier. According to the Merced Sun-Star:

The fire briefly threatened a pair of massive propane tanks at Suburban Propane along Highway 41 when the company’s building was ignited by a spot fire. Fire crews ordered most people to move back a quarter-mile from the business, and firefighters were ready to abandon the fight if flames got too close to the tanks themselves.

“The tanks are going to do what they are going to do and it’s going to be bad,” one fire official was heard saying on a radio.

In the end, the tanks were spared. Other structures were not so lucky.

The Sun-Star also offers some fire history for Oakhurst, a tourist center about 30 miles south of Yosemite Valley via Highway 41.

Wildfires have been a worry for Oakhurst residents since 1961, when the Harlow fire, stoked by winds, roared across more than 42,000 acres around the town in a little over two days. It has long been regarded as one of the fastest-moving fires on record.

Only a wind change spared the town, which had far fewer residents and homes than it has today.

Rhonda Salisbury, Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau marketing director, said Oakhurst hasn’t seen a fire that significant in more than 50 years.

“We’re all ready to get out our hoses,” she said. “We love this town and community and these firefighters have had such a hard time in the last couple years. We want to do what we can to help, but there’s not a lot of water and it’s hot and dry.”

During the day Monday, a DC-10 jumbo jet, retrofitted to serve as an aerial tanker, dropped fire retardant on the blaze. About 500 firefighters were on the lines as of late Monday night.

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Category: Environment, Science

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About the Author ()

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.
  • sstanley

    Erna’s Elderberry House / Chateau du Sureau……Be safe!!