LOS ANGELES – A wildfire burning west of Yosemite National Park doubled in size overnight while crews scrambled to set up defenses around nearby homes, officials said.
More than 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.
The fire is in steep, inaccessible terrain in many spots south of Highway 140 in the Merced River Canyon, and firefighters are attacking the flames where they can but are otherwise focusing on setting up defenses and contingency lines. To reduce the danger, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. switched off power lines 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, the agency said.
Varney’s bulldozer tumbled down a canyon while he was cutting away vegetation to protect Jerseydale in case the fire moved in that direction, Cal Fire spokesman Jeremy Rahn said. Varney had started at 8:30 p.m. Friday, and at some point radio contact with him was lost, Rahn said. “It’s common practice for the dozers to be working through the night,” he said.
Varney was spotted from the air Saturday, but because of the inaccessible terrain, his body is not going to be recovered until Monday at the earliest.
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.”