Watch CBS News

Explosive wildfire near Yosemite grows, forcing thousands of evacuations: "It's absolutely terrifying"

A fierce California wildfire expanded Monday, burning several thousand acres and forcing evacuations as tens of millions of Americans sweltered through scorching heat over the weekend. More than 2,000 firefighters backed by 17 helicopters have been deployed against the Oak Fire, which broke out Friday near Yosemite National Park, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

But three days after it began, the blaze has already consumed more than 16,700 acres and was 10% contained as of early Monday morning, the agency said.

"Extreme drought conditions have led to critical fuel moisture levels," according to Cal Fire.

Described as "explosive" by officials, the blaze has left ashes, gutted vehicles and twisted remains of properties in its wake as emergency personnel worked to evacuate residents and protect structures in its path.

It has already damaged or destroyed 15 properties, with thousands more homes and businesses threatened, CBS News correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti reports.

Smoke from the fire — which can be seen from the International Space Station — prompted an air quality advisory for the San Francisco Bay Area on Monday, Vigliotti reports.

A firefighter works to control a backfire operation conducted to slow the Oak Fire's advancement on a hillside in Mariposa County, California, on July 24, 2022.
A firefighter works to control a backfire operation conducted to slow the Oak Fire's advancement on a hillside in Mariposa County, California, on July 24, 2022. David Odisho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

More than 6,000 people had been evacuated, said Hector Vasquez, a Cal Fire official, and the Oak Fire is so far the state's largest.

This year, firefighters in California have been dispatched to more than 4,000 wildfires.

"The fire cycle up here, before these 1,500-year droughts which we're in, was like a big one every 15, 20 years, now we have multiple big fires every year," Beth Pratt, a regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation, told Vigliotti. "It's terrifying, it's absolutely terrifying."

Lynda Reynolds-Brown and her husband Aubrey awaited news about the fate of their home from an evacuation center at an elementary school. They fled as ash rained down and the fire descended a hill toward their property.
"It just seemed like it was above our house and coming our way really quickly," Reynolds-Brown told KCRA-TV.  

California Governor Gavin Newsom on Saturday declared a state of emergency in Mariposa County, citing "conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property."

In recent years, California and other parts of the Western United States have been ravaged by huge and fast-moving wildfires, driven by years of drought and a warming climate.

Evidence of global warming could be seen elsewhere in the country as 85 million Americans in more than a dozen states were under a weekend heat advisory.

The crisis prompted former Vice President Al Gore, a tireless climate advocate, to issue stark warnings Sunday about "inaction" by lawmakers.

Asked whether he believes President Biden should declare a climate emergency, which would grant him additional policy powers, Gore was blunt.

"Mother Nature has already declared it a global emergency," he told ABC News talk show "This Week."

And "it's due to get much, much worse, and quickly," he said separately on NBC.

But he also suggested that recent crises, including deadly heat waves in Europe, could serve as a wake-up call for members of Congress who have so far refused to embrace efforts to combat climate change.

"I think these extreme events that are getting steadily worse and more severe are really beginning to change minds," he said.

The central and Northeast regions have faced the brunt of the extreme heat, which is forecast to lessen somewhat on Monday.

"Searing heat will continue across the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast tonight before the upper trough over Canada dips down into the region to moderate temperatures a bit tomorrow," the National Weather Service said Sunday afternoon.

But not all regions are expected to cool down: Temperatures of 100 or more degrees Fahrenheit are forecast in the coming days across parts of eastern Kansas and Oklahoma into southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.

Not even the usually cool Pacific Northwest will escape the far-reaching heat, with high temperatures "forecast to steadily rise over the next few days, leading to the possibility for records to be broken," the weather service added.

Cities have been forced to open cooling stations and increase outreach to at-risk communities such as the homeless and those without access to air conditioning.

Various regions of the globe have been hit by extreme heat waves in recent months, such as Western Europe in July and India in March to April, incidents that scientists say are an unmistakable sign of a warming climate.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.