Progress made on Merced fire; Yosemite blaze remains unchecked

07/28/2014 9:38 PM

07/29/2014 12:04 AM

A fire that began Saturday on the western edge of Yosemite National Park has blackened more than 2,600 acres and prompted evacuations of three campgrounds and the communities of Foresta and El Portal, according to fire officials.

In Merced County, multiple fires continued burning, including one fire that consumed more than 1,000 acres and may be connected to a large marijuana bust over the weekend, officials said.

The blaze near Yosemite is burning south of the location of last year’s Rim fire, which seared more than 250,000 acres in and around Yosemite.

Hundreds of firefighters were battling the blaze, and more were being sent in to try to check its spread. About 580 fire personnel from the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire were working on the El Portal fire.

A strike team made up of five fire engines drew firefighters from five fire departments in the region – Merced, Los Banos, Mariposa Public Utilities District, Mariposa County and Madera County, according to fire officials. The strike team was assigned to protect structures in Foresta.

Two emergency medical technicians from the Merced area also were expected to deploy to the area.

The fire was 5 percent contained as of Monday. Fire officials reported no containment of the blaze Sunday night, so Monday’s small percentage was a push in the right direction.

There is a 20 percent chance of thunderstorms in El Portal through today. Rain would be helpful but accompanying lightning could spark more fires, officials said.

The El Portal and Foresta communities were evacuated early Sunday, along with the Crane Flat, Bridalveil Creek and Yosemite Creek campgrounds.

One structure has been lost in the fire, and more structures are threatened, said Ashley Mayor, a Yosemite National Park spokeswoman. The fire was shrouding Yosemite Valley in smoke.

The Mariposa County Sheriff's Office sent out an automated phone call at 1:30 a.m. Sunday telling El Portal residents to evacuate.

Highway 120, or Big Oak Flat Road, is closed between Crane Flat Road and the Highway 140 junction. Highways 140 and 41, along with Tioga Road, are all open, but visitors should expect delays.

Residents or park visitors coming from the Fresno and Merced areas are encouraged to avoid Highways 41 and 140, which are expected to be extremely congested.

The American Red Cross set up evacuation sites at Tenaya Lodge on Highway 41 and the Groveland Community Center on Highway 120 on Saturday night, but by Sunday afternoon only one or two evacuees remained at Tenaya, said Jessica Piffero, the Red Cross shelter supervisor.

She said most evacuees were tourists or campers, and they packed up and went home Sunday morning.

By Sunday afternoon, the Groveland Community Center was closed.

The Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office said Tenaya Lodge would transition by Monday morning to a resource center, meaning it wouldn’t provide lodging or full meals anymore.

A fire that broke out about 3:30 p.m. Saturday near Hatfield State Recreation Area was about 75 percent contained Monday afternoon, Battalion Chief Jeremy Rahn said.

Rahn said firefighters planned to work through the night to try to get full containment.

More than 105 firefighters have helped battle that blaze since Saturday, including firefighters from Merced, Mariposa, Tuolumne and Stanislaus counties and the city of Newman.

The Merced County Sheriff’s Department on Saturday eradicated about 6,700 marijuana plants in that same area. The fire broke out about two hours after deputies left. Authorities said they have not ruled out the possibility of a connection between the fire and the marijuana-growing operation.

A 225-acre fire burning about five mile southeast of Howard Road and Highway 140 was 100 percent contained Monday. That fire was first reported about 11 a.m. Sunday and nearly 40 firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze.

A fire that started Thursday and burned more than 400 acres near Gun Club Road and Santa Fe Grade, between Gustine and Los Banos, was also 100 percent contained Monday, officials said.

The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.

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