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Heartbroken Mariposa community mourns tragic death as summer fire rages - again

CalFire Chief speaks out on tragic death of firefighter

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Unit Chief Nancy Koerperich, speaks about firefighter and dozer operator Braden Varney, 36, who died while fighting the Ferguson Fire in Mariposa County, Calif., on Saturday, July 14, 2018.
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California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Unit Chief Nancy Koerperich, speaks about firefighter and dozer operator Braden Varney, 36, who died while fighting the Ferguson Fire in Mariposa County, Calif., on Saturday, July 14, 2018.

Braden Varney was a father and a husband, a hard-working local boy who followed in his father’s footsteps to become a talented bulldozer operator, community members said.

His tragic death at the age of 36 rocked the Mariposa community on Saturday. Varney died battling a raging wildfire that chewed up brush and trees over the steep hills of the Sierra National Forest and shut down a key road to Yosemite National Park.

He was found with his bulldozer along the sloping terrain near El Portal in Mariposa County, CalFire Division Chief Nancy Koerperich said, describing Varney as an active member of the Mariposa community.

The Ferguson Fire started Friday night, officials said. By 10 p.m. Saturday, the Sierra National Forest reported it had burned 1,000 acres and was 5 percent contained.

Varney was bulldozing vegetation around the Ferguson Fire to help stop its spread over Friday night.

CalFire officials lost radio communication with Varney, Koerperich said, adding that it wasn’t unusual to lose communication in the valleys and trenches of the nearby land.

But when officials Saturday morning searched for Varney, they found him and his overturned bulldozer at the bottom of a ravine, Koerperich said. The incident was under investigation as crews attempted to recover Varney’s remains Saturday.

Koerperich said Varney’s father also was a bulldozer operator.

“That was in his blood,” she said.

Several residents in Mariposa said Varney was a special person and a good friend.

“Braden grew up around dozers like some grew up around go-carts,” Phillips said.

Varney was known as an expert bulldozer in town, Phillips said, calling him an “artist.”

“Braden was an outstanding young man, a super-hard worker and well-respected throughout the community,” said Kevin Cann, a Mariposa County supervisor. “This will devastate our very close community. Our hearts are broken for his wife, mother, children and all his close friends.”

Gov. Jerry Brown issued a statement on Varney’s death, saying he and his wife are deeply saddened. Brown called Varney “a man who dedicated his life to protecting his fellow Californians.”

Flags at the state capitol were ordered lowered to half-staff. The Cal Fire station in Mariposa also lowered its flag.

The fire on Saturday started to threaten nearby towns and campgrounds.

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for Savages Trading Post and Ferguson Ridge Road, according to a Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office. A fire advisory was issued for Cedar Lodge, cautioning people in the area to look out for a potential evacuation order as the fire brushes closer.

Highway 140 was closed from Cedar Lodge to the top of Briceburg Grade, as was Incline Road from Briceburg Bridge to the last BLM campground.

Planada resident Luis Gonzalez and his family arrived at the Briceburg campgrounds Friday for their first camping trip.

“This morning, we saw the smoke and we were hoping it wouldn’t affect our camping trip,” Gonzalez said.

The family was planning to leave on Saturday night. But a forest official started telling people at the campgrounds to evacuate at around 5 p.m., Gonzalez said.

The fire also affected the travels of a French family trying to visit Yosemite.

Detroit resident Marion Berger said she was taking her parents and aunt and uncle from France to Yosemite on Saturday when she got a call from her Airbnb host to check in with a visitors center for more information because the fire was blocking Highway 140.

“The told us we couldn’t go (from Highway 140),” Berger said, adding that the family is staying in Mariposa for the night. “We’ll have to go from another route tomorrow.”

The fire concerned Berger, but she was encouraged she could take her family to Yosemite after an exhausting journey to the United States.

For Mariposa residents, forest fires are starting to become an unwelcome reality. The 2017 Detwiler fire caused an evacuation of Mariposa as ash started to fall on the town.

But it isn’t just the safety of their homes and loved ones that concerned citizens, Mariposa resident Charles Phillips said.

“When it comes to us locals, it’s about the economy and safety,” Phillips said, noting Mariposa seemed less busy than in previous years because of closures.

What will really hit the town is Varney’s death, Phillips said.

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