Telegraph fire 60 percent contained; rugged Mariposa terrain makes blaze difficult to control

Update: The Telegraph fire in Mariposa County was reported about 60% contained this morning, a week after the blaze was accidentally started by a target shooter.

More than 4,500 firefighters continue to battle the fire, which has destroyed 21 homes and 33 outbuildings, all of them early on in the blaze that has burned 34,034 acres.

Officials said this morning the fire continues to be active on the north and east flanks near Jenkins Hill and Soapstone Ridge. Other areas are experiencing flare-ups due to lower humidity and higher temperatures.

Today, firefighters will continue to aggressively work on getting fire lines completed in the north, with other firefighters in other areas watching for hotspots that might re-ignite, officials say.

The cost overnight jumped from $18.8 million to more than $23.8 million.

Also overnight, the number of injuries to firefighters increased from 16 to 22 -- all minor injuries

MARIPOSA -- Donna Franklin took her grandson to a relative's home last weekend to enjoy a day of swimming. While the kids played in the pool, Franklin saw smoke. She wasn't too worried, even though she knew there was a wildfire in the area. After all, fires had devastated areas around Mariposa in the past, and her home and family had always been OK.

But then Franklin and Toni Shanes, who owned the house Franklin was visiting, were told to evacuate.

"We saw the smoke first, coming over the ridge," Franklin said. "Then the fire came right behind it, like a lava flow, right down the ridge."

With pine trees exploding and the fire racing, Franklin and Shanes loaded up four children, six dogs and some of their belongings and fled the fire.

Franklin and Shanes were both at the Red Cross evacuation shelter at the Mariposa County Fairgrounds. And both of them had good news.

"We didn't get burned out," Shanes said. "They have let us go back to get some stuff, but just for a few minutes."

Shanes' home was still in the evacuation area on Thursday, but she's hopeful that she will get home soon.

While she was evacuating her family, Shanes heard explosions, and didn't know what they were.

"I found out it was dynamite exploding in the abandoned mines around here," she said.

At the fairgrounds, where the fire officials were staging, the area looked like a Boy Scout camp. Tents were set up everywhere, and canopy-covered areas had food and drinks available for the firefighters. At noon on Wednesday, there were about 4,000 people fighting the fires, according to Mikel Martin, unit chief for Cal Fire.

"There is a potential threat to Yosemite, but we are trying to get some of the people back to their homes here," Martin said.Most of the burned homes were on Whitlock Road, and some evacuees were being allowed to go back to get clean clothes and check on animals, Martin said.

"These people have begun the grieving process," Martin said. "It's very hard on people to lose their home and everything in it."

The fire is located in an area that is extremely hard to fight, according to Martin. There is rugged terrain covering the 33,705 acres that are burning now. The fire is about 40 percent contained and there is an abundance of fuel for the fires, which makes this a difficult fire to contain, Martin said. By Friday morning, firefighters are expected to have more of the blaze contained, and more people should be released to go home, he said.

"We've been here since June," Martin said. "We're getting tired."

The firefighters may be tired, but the residents of Mariposa have welcomed them with open arms. Attached to almost every home in the rural areas around the small mountain town are cardboard signs thanking the firefighters.

In town, at the corner of the cutoff for the fairgrounds, Kent Reason was standing beneath a small canopy, selling T-shirts that said "Telegraph Fire, 2008."

"It's mostly firemen who buy the shirts," said the Roseville man. "They want a souvenir from the fire."

Reason came to Mariposa, inspired by his two firefighter brothers-in-law.

Although firemen are the usual buyers of the shirts, "today, twice as many shirts were bought by residents as by firemen," Reason said.

Along Whitlock Road, where the fire demolished homes, Joe Mayfield was back at his home that had been spared by the fire. He had been told to evacuate on Saturday morning at 3 a.m.

"I got my two horses in the trailer and got out," Mayfield said.

Mayfield said that he is staying with friends, and his horses are safe in Atwater. He isn't too worried about the fire -- he said it happens a lot.

"Every 100 years, the place burns, but there are a lot of things people can do," Mayfield said. "If they would clear the land around their homes, it'd be harder for the fire to get them."

PG&E had cut off service to many areas around Mariposa and in Yosemite National Park because of the threat from the fast-moving fires. Martin said that he hadn't heard from PG&E when the power would be turned back on.

At the evacuation center, children played video games and the little kids had an assortment of toys to choose from. Paola Jackson of Mariposa, was also at the shelter, but not because she was burned out.

"I wanted to help, so I brought down some ice cream," Jackson said. But not just any old ice cream -- Jackson brought homemade "Mexican chocolate" ice cream.

"I wanted to make the ice cream because there's nothing like homemade," Jackson said.

While the the younger children sat on the floor of the evacuation center and played games, Shanes held her 7-month-old grandson Xzavier Romero.

"This fire doesn't change my mind about living in Mariposa," Shanes said. "When you make a choice to live in a beautiful area, you have to take what comes."

A Mariposa woman whose family was evacuated because of the Telegraph fire reflects on the past week.

CalFire Unit Chief Mikel Martin leads a Thursday press conference

Update: Mariposa blaze is now at 40 percent containment; some evacuees go home

Update: 9:30 a.m.: Six days after a target shooter allegedly started the blaze, the Telegraph fire in Mariposa County appears to be getting closer to becoming just a bad memory for thousands of local residents as an army of firefighters, more than 4,400 strong, continues to make significant progress.

Despite an increase overnight of acres burned, from 32,063 to 33,705 acres (50 square miles), top fire officials this morning estimated containment holding at 40%.

Some 200 residents were allowed to return to their homes Wednesday and firefighters continue to reduce the risk to structures in the Midpines and Mariposa area.

No more homes have been destroyed since 21 homes were burned to the ground early on in the blaze. The cost of battling the blaze, meanwhile, jumped overnight from $15 million to more than $18.8 million.

MARIPOSA -- Firefighters on Wednesday gained ground in their assault on the 32,000-acre Telegraph fire, bringing containment up to 40 percent, letting some residents back into their homes, and seeing power restored in some areas.

Wednesday night, about 200 Midpines residents were allowed to return to unburned homes. How soon other mandatory evacuations will be lifted remains unclear, but the arrival of 230 Air National Guard troops could speed the process.

"They want us to help get these people back in their homes as soon as possible," said Lt. Col. Jeff Richard.

Guardsmen and women will be on fire lines in 24-hour shifts, helping to clear brush and debris, he said. They will sleep in tents at the Mariposa County Fairgrounds.

The Guard joins 3,800 fire personnel in fighting the fire, which has destroyed 21 homes.

Hand crews made up of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation inmates and U.S. Forest Service hot shot crews have been carrying hoes and chain saws and fire hose up steep terrain to make fire lines.

"That is grueling, hard work to lay a hose in this fire," said Mike Mohler, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection public information officer.

Jerrod Watson, a 28-year-old inmate from Soledad State Prison, earned $1 an hour Wednesday building a fire line on dangerous inclines at Highway 140 and Jenkins Hill.

He was exhausted at the end of a 24-hour shift. But "it's worth it to protect Yosemite," he said. "It's such a nice place, you don't want to see it up in flames."

Highway 140 reopened Wednesday to one-way traffic with California Highway Patrol escorts, but motorists were encouraged to use alternate routes to Yosemite National Park.

Electricity continued to be restored Wednesday to areas that lost power because of the fire, sparked Friday by a target shooter. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. spokesman Jeff Smith said two mobile generators had been moved into the area and one was operating Wednesday. The second was expected to come online before this morning, he said.

Power was restored to National Park Service facilities in El Portal, just outside Yosemite National Park, early Wednesday afternoon, park spokesman Scott Gediman said.

Nevertheless, Smith said, about 600 customers remain without power because fire crews are still working there.

In the air, helicopters scooped buckets of water from the Merced River to douse flames on the northern fringe of the fire above Briceburg. Fixed-wing tankers dropped fire retardant and a plane capable of scooping water out of lakes was called in to drop water.

"We threw everything on that area" on Tuesday, Mohler said. And it paid off. The fire had not marched farther north or east toward El Portal.

Weather helps firefighters

Favorable weather and continued attacks by ground crews and aircraft led to significant progress Wednesday. When the day began, the fire was 20 percent contained. By midafternoon, thanks mainly to progress along the southern front, containment was estimated to be 40 percent.

There was some continued spread of fire to the north, toward Greeley Hill and Coulterville, but even that was slow in the face of light wind, mild temperatures and higher humidity. The benign weather enabled officials to put a dozen air tankers and 13 helicopters to work on the blaze.

But firefighters worried the fire could make new assaults on ridges. "We've had some major runs out of the canyons with this fire," Mohler said.

Homeowners who lost their homes returned to denuded, blackened mountains.

Kelley McClard placed porcelain animals into a blackened pot. They were about the only undamaged items in the ruins of her home.

"I don't know why I'm taking this stuff," McClard said, fighting back tears as she rubbed ashes off the figurines. "All the little things you didn't think were very important."

Mariposa County sheriff's deputies escorted McClard and other evacuees for brief visits to homes that had been turned into piles of ash, twisted metal and melted plastic.

"It looked like a wasteland," Renee Chaty said of the landscape around her home at the end of the paved section of Sherlock Road at Telegraph Road.

Chaty, who was laid off from her job at a hazardous technology company Friday, said: "I'm out of a job, out of a house. I lost everything I own."

McClard and son Eric McClard lost a plumbing business as well as two homes on the 10 acres they own on West Whitlock Road.

As shards of broken drywall crunched under his feet, Eric McClard said: "This is where I make my living. How am I going to start over from this?"

McClard's father, Rickey, started the plumbing business 32 years ago. He built both homes. He died four years ago.

"We had an attic up top and a deck out back and he built me a custom laundry room," Kelley McClard said.

A blackened spaghetti pot brought back a rush of memories. "He got me that," she said, sobbing. "It was the best thing I ever had."

UPDATE - Wednesday, 5 p.m.: Electric power continued to be restored this afternoon to areas that lost electricity because of the Telegraph fire in Mariposa County.

PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said two mobile generators had been moved into the area and one was operating today. The second was expected to come on line sometime tonight, he said.

Power was restored to National Park Service facilities in El Portal, just outside Yosemite National Park, early this afternoon and was expected to be restored in Yosemite Valley within hours, park spokesman Scott Gediman said.

Smith said that about 600 customers in the fire area remain without power because fire crews are still working there. Many of those customers are in areas that have been evacuated.

"The remaining customers who are still out will remain out until Cal Fire gives us the OK to go ahead" and restore power to them, Smith said.

Telegraph Fire 40 percent contained, officials say

UPDATE - 3:30 p.m. Cal Fire reports that the Telegraph fire in Mariposa County is 40 percent contained. That's double the containment that the agency reported this morning. The fire has burned 21 homes and 33 outbuildings. The cost of fighting the fire so far is estimated at $15 million.

Toll of Telegraph fire near Yosemite, Mariposa continues to rise

Update: 9 a.m.: The numbers associated with the Telegraph fire - acreage burned, containment, cost - are growing.

The fire burning in Mariposa County, about 12 miles west of Yosemite National Park, has consumed more than 32,000 acres. The fire is now 20 percent contained, according to a 7 a.m. update by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

It is one of several fires still burning in the state, large swaths of which were set ablaze nearly two months ago as fire season got an early start.

The Telegraph fire began Friday, sparked by a target shooter on private property. The firefighting effort now carries a price tag of nearly $14 million.

Twenty-one homes and 32 outbuildings have been destroyed. The fire continues to threaten 4,000 homes in several Mariposa County communities, Cal Fire states.

Mandatory evacuations are in place along roads that run between Mariposa, Midpines and Greeley Hill. Evacuation warnings also are in effect for portions of Mariposa, Midpines, Greeley Hill, Coulterville and Briceburg.

The fire also is causing closures along portions of Highway 140, which leads to the main entrance of Yosemite.

An evacuation center is at Mariposa Elementary School, 5044 Jones St., Mariposa.

For evacuation information, call (209) 966-1133.

Update: 8 a.m.: UPDATE - 8 a.m. The Telegraph fire has consumed more than 32,000 acres but now, in its sixth day, is 20 percent contained, Cal Fire said today. In its morning update, the agency said the fire had destroyed 21 homes and 32 other structures. Fifteen of the nearly 3,800 firefighters battling the blaze have suffered minor injuries.

MARIPOSA -- As the Telegraph fire stormed into its fifth day Tuesday, still only 15 percent contained, some bits of good news emerged:

Fewer homes than earlier believed have been lost. Hundreds of homes and businesses saw power restored. Evacuees forced from their homes at a moment's notice, with no time to load pets or farm animals, found that friends and volunteers had rescued them.

Doral Mosher left behind Digger. Mosher, 87, had released the old gray donkey from his pen Saturday as flames were about to engulf the family homestead on Mosher Road.

"I could see the fire, and when I could see it starting on my 40 acres, I got out of there," Mosher said. He saw Digger trot away.

Mosher was among hundreds of fire evacuees who left behind animals as they fled flames that have charred almost 30,000 acres, or 46 square miles, and destroyed at least 21 homes and 32 outbuildings in five days. Fire officials said Monday that 25 homes had been destroyed, but revised that figure Tuesday.

About 3,500 firefighters and support staff are battling the blaze. A dozen minor injuries have been reported since the fire broke out Friday. Cal Fire officials would not estimate when they would contain the blaze.

About 4,000 residences in Midpines, Briceburg, Mariposa, Coulterville, Bear Valley, Mount Bullion and the southern part of Greeley Hill remained threatened by the blaze Tuesday. Highway 140 into Yosemite National Park remained closed.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. restored power Tuesday afternoon to hundreds of homes and businesses that had lost electricity because of the fire, a utility spokesman said.

More than 500 customers north of Mariposa along Highway 140 between Indian Flat and El Portal, plus others, had power restored by 5 p.m., said spokesman Jeff Smith.

PG&E shut down power lines into Yosemite on Saturday because of the risk to firefighters. Then the fire brought down a transmission line to the park.

Restaurants, grocery stores and hotel lobbies in Yosemite have been getting by on generators. PG&E plans to bring in another mobile generator today.

Cal Fire Capt. Cheryl Goetz said she couldn't estimate when evacuees could go home. The fire was spreading toward Greeley Hill to the northwest and toward Stanislaus National Forest and El Portal to the northeast. About 30 homes in Greeley Hill were under mandatory evacuation; El Portal residents were advised to evacuate.

About 150 people attended a community meeting Tuesday night at Mariposa County High School, where many made it clear they would like to return to their homes. Goetz cautioned them of the danger of flare-ups and said power and phone service need to be restored before evacuees could return.

Debby McLain was among those eager to return, saying she had visited her home Tuesday and saw no flames nearby. She said she didn't need power and phone service because she has a cell phone and a generator.

"I just want to go home," she said, under her breath.

On the northern edge of the fire, it was a tense day in Greeley Hill.

Resident Brian Shutt said a Forest Service employee told him to be prepared to leave at a moment's notice. He and his wife, Sharon, had packed important papers and family photos, and some food for their year-old Jack Russell terrier.

By Tuesday evening, it looked as if the fire had bypassed the community, the wind driving the flames toward the east.

But Shutt wasn't letting his guard down, because the wind can change direction quickly.

Shutt said some residents have been through wildfires before. "They are not all that worried about it," he said. "We have other people who are homebound, who don't drive, who have never been through something like this. They are freaking out."

In the event of an evacuation, authorities had a plan to send automated phone messages to residents and pick up those who don't have transportation.

At the Mariposa fairgrounds, animal control workers are keeping watch over a zoo's worth of creatures.

"There are chickens, cats, horses, geese, dogs, rabbits -- just about every kind of animal you could have," said Capt. Byron Robles of the Mariposa County Sheriff's Department.

County animal control workers rescued many of the animals. But some, including Digger, escaped death thanks to friends helping each other in this mountain community where neighbors know each other, as well as each other's animals, by name.

Jon Currie, one of Mosher's neighbors, saved Digger. The donkey often made unexpected visits to Currie's place, about three miles away on Whitlock Road.

Currie found Digger there Saturday. It was about the same time that neighbor Wendy Vittan called. Sheriff's deputies were telling her to evacuate and she didn't know what to do, Currie said. Her husband was out of town, and she had five horses with no time to save them.

Currie also was under orders to evacuate. He could pack his belongings and leave. Or he could help Vittan get her horses out.

Currie, who doesn't own a car, saddled Fausto, his appaloosa, for the 45-minute ride to his neighbor's.

"He didn't get anything out," said Eve Sheldon, another neighbor. "He had a choice of what to save, horses or house, and he went for the horses."

Flames paralleled his ride up the Mount Bullion trail. "Trees were blowing up," Currie said. "That was exciting."

When he got to his neighbor's, Currie quickly fashioned halters out of ropes left outside the corral. And with Fausto as lead, he tied the five horses -- Ripple, Rosebud, Blizzard, China Doll and Trixie -- in a row. Digger ran loose behind. Currie led them to a safe area and a trailer took them to the fairgrounds.

At the fairgrounds Tuesday, Currie twisted his handlebar mustache and gave credit to Fausto for leading the horses to safety. "He was bridled and saddled and ready to ride, looking like a hero," he said.

Currie lost his house and belongings in the fire. But he has no regrets. "It was the right decision. I'm convinced of that."

As the pet owners waited out the evacuation, they got one more tidbit of good news: a Sacramento-based nonprofit group, United Animal Nations, is offering grants of up to $500 to help victims of the Telegraph fire care for pets.

People who qualify can get money to pay for veterinary care or temporary boarding if expenses are fire-related, said spokeswoman Alexis Raymond.

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