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Ferguson Fire potential strikes fear into meeting attendees

Forest officials have officially closed all forest roads and trails in this large part of the Sierra National Forest due to safety concerns and to aid in ongoing firefighting efforts to extinguish the Ferguson Fire, which had swelled to more than 12,500 acres Tuesday, July 17, 2018.
Forest officials have officially closed all forest roads and trails in this large part of the Sierra National Forest due to safety concerns and to aid in ongoing firefighting efforts to extinguish the Ferguson Fire, which had swelled to more than 12,500 acres Tuesday, July 17, 2018. Courtesy U.S. Forest Service

Whispers and murmurs could be heard throughout a packed cafeteria during a meeting on the Ferguson Fire at Wasuma Elementary School in Ahwahnee on Tuesday night as the community processed the potential magnitude of the blaze.

The audience was shown a map of where the fire was, as well as where it could spread. Attendees were audibly anxious when Mike Strawhun, incident commander for the South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team, said the fire could stretch as far east as Yosemite West and as far south as the Chowchilla Mountains.

“The probability is there,” Strawhun said.

Cedar Lodge in El Portal is one of the 108 structures threatened by the Ferguson Fire. It also happens to be the closest in proximity to the blaze that sparked Friday and had consumed 17,319 acres by Wednesday afternoon, when containment was estimated at 5 percent.

According to Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Public Information Officer, Natasha Fouts-Noble, the Ferguson Fire has burned more than 12,000 acres and is about five percent contained, in Mariposa County, Calif., on Tuesday, July 17, 2018.

Jim Mackensen, a U.S. Forest Service spokesperson, said firefighters felt confident they could control the fire’s threat to the lodge and the structures surrounding it on Highway 140.

“Nothing is 100 percent controlled, but the situation there is looking really good,” Mackensen said.

Richard Eagan, a spokesperson for the Chula Vista Fire Department that is helping fight the fire, said the firefighters “burned out” the area around the lodge, meaning they used fire to consume fuel between the edge of the fire and the control line.

Better conditions

Eagan added that Wednesday’s smoke conditions were not as much of a hindrance as on previous days. Visibility issues caused by the smoke had limited the usage of air tankers.

“The inversion layer has lifted a lot quicker. I remember other days it would not lift until 2 or 3 p.m.,” said Eagan, adding the layer had lifted by noon Wednesday.

This bodes well for the area of the fire around Ferguson Ridge, where aerial forces will be used to hold the fire on top of the ridge.

Reinforcements continue to be brought in. The total personnel was at 1,850 Wednesday afternoon, Strawhun said. Sixty more U.S. Forest Service officers arrived Wednesday afternoon to help with “command and control” operations.

By Wednesday evening total personnel was listed at 2,149

Dean Gould, forest supervisor for the U.S. Forest Service, said the continued increase in personnel is an effort to “stay ahead” of the fire.

The growth in numbers has not been much help to the biggest issue in fighting the blaze: the steep terrain. The topography of the area engulfed by the fire makes it impossible for firefighters to battle it at the edge.

Firefighters, Mariposa residents, and friends of Braden Varney, the firefighter killed Saturday while battling the Ferguson Fire, lined Highway 49 for a procession to the Stanislaus County Coroner's Office after his body was recovered.

“We just want our firefighters to be safe,” Mariposa County Sheriff Doug Binnewies said at the community meeting. The terrain led to the death of firefighter Braden Varney when it caused his bulldozer to roll over.

Firefighters said in a news release the fire continues to back slowly north on Ferguson Ridge and down into Sweetwater Creek. The fire is expected to move east across the slope through Wednesday night.

2 firefighters injured

In addition to Varney’s death, two firefighters have been injured. One suffered a broken leg and the other suffered from a heat-related illness.

Tuesday night’s community meeting in Ahwahnee also cleared up some questions about evacuations for the attendees. Binnewies said people evacuating livestock and large animals should call the sheriff’s department for help, and that leaving the porch light on is a way to communicate that a house has been evacuated.

Mandatory evacuations are still in place for Incline Road from Foresta Bridge to the last Bureau of Land Management campground, Jerseydale/Mariposa Pines, Cedar Lodge/Indian Flat Campground, Savage’s Trading Post and Sweetwater Ridge.

William Ramirez: 559-341-3416, @TheSierraStar
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