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Oak Fire’s ‘extreme fire behavior’ causes rapid spread, forcing thousands to evacuate

The Oak Fire burns near the Jerseydale community of Mariposa County, Calif., on Saturday.
Noah Berger
/
AP
The Oak Fire burns near the Jerseydale community of Mariposa County, Calif., on Saturday.

By Monday, the fire spread to 16,791 acres with 10% containment as hot and dry conditions fueled the fast-moving fire.

The largest wildfire burning so far this season in California is feeding on hot and dry conditions in Mariposa County, just outside of Yosemite National Park. The fire exploded in size over the weekend, now nearly 17,000 acres in size and with 10% containment.

Since it started Friday, seven structures have been destroyed and more than 3700 people have been forced to evacuate. Justin McComb, an operations chief for Cal Fire said it was a challenge to keep up with what firefighters call “extreme fire behavior.”

“In my career, I haven’t seen fire like that. It was a rapid rate of spread, long-range spotting, active crown-fire runs; it ran the gamut,” McComb said at a community meeting at Mariposa County High School Sunday evening. Still, during Monday’s update posted to CAL-FIRE’s Facebook page, McComb said he was more optimistic than in previous days.

A Mariposa County resident displaced by the fast-growing Oak Fire asks questions during a Sunday community meeting hosted by Cal Fire.
Joshua Yeager
/
KVPR
A Mariposa County resident displaced by the fast-growing Oak Fire asks questions during a Sunday community meeting hosted by Cal Fire.

Dead and dried fuels have allowed the fire to spread fast in steep and rugged terrain. Crews were able to hold off the fire from creeping into the community of Lush Meadows Sunday. Monday’s focus turned to monitoring homes in Mariposa Pines. McComb said the main focus is protecting communities. “The faster that we can cool down all the hotspots around the structures, the faster that we can get the residents back in.”

More than 2500 firefighters are working to stop the fire from spreading to potentially thousands more homes throughout Mariposa County. This is the third fire to spread in and near Mariposa County in July. The Agua Fire started July 18 on Highway 140, west of Mariposa. It’s been fully contained after growing to nearly 500 acres. The Washburn Fire started July 7 in Yosemite National Park, at one point, threatening a historic grove of giant sequoias. It’s now 87% contained after growing to nearly 5,000 acres.

“These wildfires do affect so many more communities than they did before,” said Taylor Poisall with the Red Cross of the Central Valley. The evacuation center at Mariposa Elementary School is the third she’s set up this month as fires raced across the Sierra. “We’ve had quite a few families who, this is not the first time they’ve evacuated,” she said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on Saturday for Mariposa County. The state secured a Fire Management Assistance Grant from FEMA to help with resources to fight the fire.

“It almost brings you to tears having to sit here and talk with our local communities every time we have a fire. It seems we keep having them every year, and we just keep praying the fire’s not us this year, but it keeps hitting us,” Cal Fire unit chief Mike Van Loben Sels said after Sunday’s public information meeting.

Cal Fire unit chief Mike Van Loben Sels answers questions during a community meeting to share information about the fast-spreading Oak Fire.
Joshua Yeager
/
KVPR
Cal Fire unit chief Mike Van Loben Sels answers questions during a community meeting to share information about the fast-spreading Oak Fire.

In the meantime, Yosemite National Park remains open and unaffected by the Oak Fire. All entrances to the park are open. But Highway 140 is closed north of Mariposa because of the fire. Visitors are encouraged to check air quality in the area.

Soreath Hok is a multimedia journalist with 16 years of experience in radio, television and digital production. At KVPR she covers local government, politics and other local news.
Joshua Yeager is a Report For America corps reporter covering Kern County for KVPR.