A combination of heat, low humidity and parched vegetation continues to plague firefighters battling a searing blaze in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Yosemite that has forced thousands to flee their homes.
The Oak Fire began Friday near Midpines and had grown to 14,281 acres by early Sunday, making it California’s largest fire so far this season and prompting Governor Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency. emergency for Mariposa County.
While not as large or destructive as the August Complex Fire in 2020 or the Dixie Fire in 2021, experts fear the Oak Fire could be the start of what could be a particularly difficult wildfire season in California.
A combination of climate change, intense drought and encroaching vegetation over the past few decades has increased the likelihood of devastating and rapid fires.
“I think we can expect a lot more of the same, unfortunately,” said Park Williams, an associate professor and climatologist at UCLA. “As long as we have more heat waves, we will continue to see California forests really ready to burn because they have been so dry.”
Temperatures in the mid-90s – slightly warmer than usual – and humidity in the single digits created a distressing situation for crews battling the Oak Fire.
The blaze destroyed 10 structures, damaged five and threatened more than 2,600 others, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The fire forced more than 3,000 residents to flee their homes. Authorities have not determined what caused the fire.
Smoke billowing from the blaze smothered much of the San Joaquin Valley over the weekend as the fire continued to spread northeast toward the mountain community of Jerseydale and south toward Bootjack .
The smoke plumes were so thick Sunday morning that they were blowing over Bootjack Market & Deli, about a quarter mile from the blaze.
Keisha McGruder, who runs the deli just off Highway 49, said she’s staying open despite the conditions to make sure people get the food and supplies they need to hide or flee.
This group includes the fire crew and emergency personnel who McGruder offers free coffee and soft drinks to as they transform his parking lot into an impromptu hangout.
“It’s pretty devastating here,” she said.
Since Friday, the fire has quickly eaten away at parched grass, brush, woodland oaks and moved into woodland stands. There, the flames have overtaken conifers killed by drought and bark beetle infestations causing crown fires, where the fire burns through the top layer of a tree’s foliage.
The heavy fuel load and wind, created by the fire itself, sent embers more than a mile from the blaze, said Hector Vasquez, spokesman for Cal Fire.
Despite poor weather conditions, resources were abundant. More than 2,000 firefighters were battling the blaze on Sunday, up from around 500 a day earlier.
“One of the big contributing factors is that we’re the only big fight going right now so that we can pull in those resources from all over the state,” Vasquez said.
While daytime temperatures are expected to be in the 90s this week, nighttime humidity is expected to improve as monsoon humidity moves into the region from northern Mexico on Tuesday, said forecaster Jeff Barlow. chief of the National Weather Service.
“The day is tough because the fuel is so heavy with tons of dead trees and the fire is almost creating its own weather environment,” Barlow said. “It’s the night the fires died out that we can see better recovery overnight.”
Air quality officials predicted the incessant smoke would make its way to the Bay Area early Monday.
Red Cross officials had registered more than 100 people at the main evacuation center at Mariposa Primary School by early Sunday afternoon.
Just under half spent the night in cots in converted classrooms, local Red Cross spokesman Taylor Poisall said.
Aubrey Brown and his wife, Lynda, have been at the center since Friday when they rushed from their home in the Lushmeadows community.
Brown was working in his garage when he noticed the sky turning orange. He came out to see a giant plume of smoke circling their home.
The couple, both in their 70s, moved from the Bay Area a year and a half ago, seduced by a campaign that reminded them of their youth in more rural areas.
They purchased a two-acre property with a custom home with a wall of glass that offers stunning mountain views. They understood that they were buying in a fire prone area.
“We bought with our eyes wide open,” Lynda Brown said. “There’s a price to pay for having paradise these days.”
Sitting in her front yard on Sunday morning as ash rained down on her, Beth Pratt was grateful things hadn’t gotten worse.
Less than a mile from the Midpines evacuation zone, Pratt had packed up his car Saturday, ready to go.
“The fire exploded,” said Pratt, 53, who is the California regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation. “It looked like Godzilla above my house.”
But then firefighting planes began to arrive, dumping retardant and dozing the flames near her. Pratt cheered them on from the floor. The planes have not stopped arriving.
“Here I am in the middle of nowhere outside of Yosemite,” she said. “But I feel like I’ve been under LAX the last few days.”
In the 25 years she has lived in Midpines, she has had to evacuate three times due to wildfires. But she said the Oak Fire was her scariest experience because it’s so big and so fast.
She’s been without power in the sweltering temperatures, pulling water for herself, five dogs, two cats and a lizard.
Pratt plans to stay until there is an evacuation order because leaving is stressful for her animals and because once you leave it’s hard to come back, she said.
“I’m still not off the hook,” Pratt said. “The wind blows the fire away from me. But that means blowing it on someone else, which doesn’t make you feel good.