For more than a week, the Mountain Area has been ruled by continued chaos from two infernos recently started near Yosemite National Park north of Oakhurst, and in North Fork. Hundreds, if not thousands were evacuated as at least 19 structures, many of them homes, were burned to ash by Tuesday afternoon, while 1,300 firefighting personnel remained on assignment.
Higher rates of humidity this week, and declining temperatures, had officials expressing “cautious optimism” about the fates of the blazes as they continued to burn.
But, they noted, conditions were subject to change at any time, as fire behavior is often unpredictable due to erratic winds, high amounts of dead trees and other fuels, and steep, rocky terrain.
As a result of all the fires, smoky conditions were expected to remain throughout the week and some events have been postponed or canceled. Those with sensitivity to smoky conditions are advised to consult with their physicians, and remain inside with the windows closed. Smoke is typically strongest in the mornings.
Railroad Fire (Fish Camp)
The first fire of the two, and largest, was the Railroad Fire. Sparked on Aug. 29 along Highway 41 near Mill Canyon Road in Fish Camp, shortly south of Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, the conflagration was by latest reports at 10,734 acres and 23% contained, with 875 personnel.
Almost immediately, the fire forced the evacuation of Fish Camp and Sugar Pine, including Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite and the Narrow Gauge Inn. Within days, damage was reported to historical items at the railroad as the blaze spread to the west and southwest, as well as to the east and southeast towards Sugar Pine, which remained its most active flank.
“Some pieces of history can’t be replaced,” Sugar Pine Railroad general manager Shane Blackwell said, of dam age caused to an old locomotive not in use as well as a passenger car, snowplow, side dump car, refrigerator car, and more than 200 wooden railroad ties.
Six homes around the property were also confirmed as lost to the flames. At least 14 structures were reported as destroyed by Tuesday. The fire also spread into Nelder Grove, home to giant sequoias, some more than 2,500 years old. The trees, known for being fire resistant, reportedly managed to survive the flames, and structures within the grove were kept safe through prevention efforts.
Highway 41 remained closed in the Cedar Valley area, another community that was still under threat with mandatory evacuation orders. On Monday, evacuation orders were lifted in Fish Camp, with the highway reopened only from Yosemite into the small community. Those returning to their homes would have to travel the Highway 140 entrance into Yosemite National Park, then follow roads back south to the Fish Camp area. There was no planned reopening date for Highway 41, Tenaya Lodge, or Narrow Gauge Inn, though those involved with the locations expressed a desire to reopen as conditions allow.
Information officers said that the western side of the fire, near where a spot fire broke out on Sunday north of Road 620 forcing pre-evacuation advisories, remained stable.
Mission Fire (North Fork)
On Sunday, the community of Cascadel Heights, near Cascadel Woods east of Oakhurst, was forced under mandatory evacuations as a new blaze erupted around 1 p.m. and ripped through hundreds of acres within hours.
That day, air attack crews were placed on no-divert orders as human life was threatened. Fifty people were reportedly trapped in the area for a short period, but were able to be evacuated thanks to the Madera County Sheriff’s Office and other responders.
By Tuesday, the Mission Fire was reported at 875 acres with 8% contained. Five homes were destroyed, and 250 remained under threat. Road 233, Road 225, and Douglas Ranger Station Road were all under closure orders as 462 personnel were assigned.
Federal Emergency Management Agency funds were authorized to help fight the fire as it had the potential to become a “major disaster.”
Peak Fire (Mariposa)
Also in Mariposa, two additional fires were started on Sunday.
As the Mission Fire was reported in North Fork, almost at the exact same time, another blaze came to life, in Mariposa.
The Peak Fire, started on Usona Road near Indian Peak, was reported at 680 acres and 50% contained Tuesday. The areas of Bronco Hollow Estates and Riverhaven remained under evacuation orders, with Usona Road reopened to residents only.
Structures were reportedly still under threat.
Cathedral Fire (Mariposa)
Sunday night, a fourth fire was reported in the Lush Meadows of Mariposa when a structure fire spread into surrounding vegetation.
The Cathedral Fire, in the 5700 block of Cathedral Spires Road, was 100% contained at five acres. It was not clear how many structures were damaged or destroyed.
The cause of all four fires remains under investigation.