CalFire Chief speaks out on tragic death of firefighter
Danette Moreno and her husband Darryl Walker sat on cots Sunday afternoon, trying to stay positive amid the Ferguson Fire that threatens their Mariposa Pines dream home.
The fire by Sunday afternoon had burned 4,310 acres, with just 2 percent contained by firefighters, as it forced more than 50 people from their homes near El Portal, according to Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service. In addition, a Cal Fire firefighter was killed Saturday while battling the blaze.
Moreno said she left her 1,700-square-foot home in Mariposa Pines with Walker and their 2-year-old terrier-dachshund mix, Angus, shortly after midnight on Sunday. Mariposa County Sheriff’s deputies were making the rounds to enforce the mandatory evacuations.
“My attitude is never ‘Why me?’” the 64-year-old said. “It’s out of our hands. It’s all up to the good Lord.”
Still, she’s worried about the home. “It’s our dream house,” she said. “(My husband) had just finished doing some landscaping back there. We were having a really good summer until this happened.”
The Yosemite West Area was added Sunday to the areas already under evacuation orders, which included Briceburg to Cedar Lodge on Highway 140 and Mariposa Pines north of Bear Clover, according to Cal Fire. The Jerseydale area was placed under an advisory.
The Mariposa County couple retired to their home about five years ago from the Los Angeles area, where Walker worked on planes for a corporate airline. He said they’d seen three fires in that time, but this was the first to force them from their home.
Walker, 76, said he was grateful the shelter wasn’t too far, just 10 miles, from the home.
Efforts to control the blaze took a tragic turn Saturday when heavy Cal Fire equipment operator Braden Varney, 36, was killed when his bulldozer rolled over in steep terrain near El Portal. Varney, of Mariposa, is survived by a wife and two small children, according to statewide Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean. He had been with Cal Fire for a decade.
Moreno said her neighbor knew the firefighter. “It’s really sad,” she said. “Just a shame.” Varney was cutting a fire break to prevent the blaze from spreading when his bulldozer rolled over, Cal Fire Unit Chief Nancy Koerperich said. The bulldozer ended up at the bottom of a ravine.
Mariposa County Supervisor Kevin Cann said “Braden was an outstanding young man, a super-hard worker and well-respected throughout the community. This will devastate our very close community. Our hearts are broken for his wife, mother, children and all his close friends.”
The steep terrain led the fire to grow from 1,000 acres late Saturday to 4,000 by Sunday, according to U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Alex Olow. “It’s in the Merced River Canyon, which is a steep canyon. It’s hard to access into the canyon for the firefighters,” he said. “They’re taking advantage of areas where they know they’re going to get a high rate of success.”
Helicopters are also dropping water in those areas too steep to access, he said.
Workers at the Red Cross shelter inside New Life Fellowship Church, 5089 Cole Road in Mariposa, said about a dozen people were expected to stay in the shelter on Sunday. Several more slept there Saturday night but had since gone to hotels or the homes of family members, they said.
Moreno and Walker planned to stay in the shelter until they’re allowed to go home. In the meantime, Moreno lamented what could be lost if flames reach the house.
“It’s not the stuff. It’s the irreplaceable things that bother you,” she said. “Like the pictures, the things I didn’t remember to grab.”