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Bay Area firefighters join thousands battling Oak Fire burning near Yosemite

Bay Area firefighters join thousands battling Oak Fire near Yosemite
Bay Area firefighters join thousands battling Oak Fire near Yosemite 04:23

WAWONA -- A destructive wildfire near Yosemite National Park burned out of control through tinder-dry forest on Sunday and had grown into one of California's biggest blazes of the year, forcing thousands of residents to flee remote mountain communities.

Some 2,000 firefighters battled the Oak Fire, along with aircraft and bulldozers, facing tough conditions that includes steep terrain, sweltering temperatures and low humidity, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

"It's hot out there again today," Cal Fire spokesperson Natasha Fouts said Sunday. "And the fuel moisture levels are critically low."

Crews on the ground protected homes as air tankers dropped retardant on 50-foot flames racing along ridgetops east of the tiny community of Jerseydale.

Oak Fire torches homes and forest sending smoke across state by KPIX CBS SF Bay Area on YouTube

Light winds blew embers ahead into tree branches "and because it's so dry, it's easy for the spot fires to get established and that's what fuels the growth," Fouts said.

"Typical summer conditions compiled with years of drought, tree kill through prolonged drought -- there's a lot of dead timber and vegetation in that area that just aggravates the situation," said Alameda County Fire battalion chief Kent Carlin. 

Alameda Country Fire sent 22 people from various agencies including Fremont and Oakland fire departments early Saturday to help crews battle the flames. Sonoma County also sent its strike team to the area, where they will stay for the next two weeks. 

Carlin spoke about his team's challenges. 

"A long, hard days at work piled on top of already demanding schedules in their own jurisdictions. A lot of people are working a lot of extra days and they're being asked to respond and perform. There's a shortage of resources because, of course, this time of year there's a heightened demand."

The fire erupted Friday southwest of the park near the town of Midpines in Mariposa County. Officials described "explosive fire behavior" on Saturday as flames made runs through bone-dry vegetation caused by the worst drought in decades.

By Sunday evening the blaze had consumed more than 24 square miles (15,600 acres) of forest land, with no containment, Cal Fire said. The cause was under investigation.

Evacuations were in place for over 6,000 people living across a several-mile span of the sparsely populated area in the Sierra Nevada foothills, though a handful of residents defied the orders and stayed behind, said Adrienne Freeman with the U.S. Forest Service.

"We urge people to evacuate when told," she said. "This fire is moving very fast."

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 towards their property.

"It just seemed like it was above our house and coming our way really quickly," Reynolds-Brown told KCRA-TV.

Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed a state of emergency for Mariposa County due to the fire's effects.

Evacuations reported as California forests burn by Associated Press on YouTube

Flames destroyed at least 10 residential and commercial structures and damaged five others, Cal Fire said. Assessment teams were moving through mountain towns to check for additional damage, Fouts said.

Numerous roads were closed, including a stretch of State Route 140 that's one of the main routes into Yosemite.

California has experienced increasingly larger and deadlier wildfires in recent years as climate change has made the West much warmer and drier over the past 30 years. Scientists have said weather will continue to be more extreme and wildfires more frequent, destructive and unpredictable.

Pacific Gas & Electric said on its website that more than 3,100 homes and businesses in the area had lost power as of Sunday and there was no indication when it would be restored. "PG&E is unable to access the affected equipment," the utility said as flames roared Friday.

The Oak Fire was sparked as firefighters made progress against an earlier blaze, the Washburn Fire, that burned to the edge of a grove of giant sequoias in the southernmost part of Yosemite National Park. The 7.5-square-mile (19-square-km) fire was nearly 80% contained after burning for two weeks and moving into the the Sierra National Forest.

The Bay Area office of the National Weather Service on Sunday said smoke from the Oak Fire was expected to arrive over parts of the Bay Area beginning Monday morning. Currently, smoke is likely to remain aloft rather than near the surface, so it should not affect air quality. However, some residents will see hazy and slightly red or orange-tinted skies due to this smoke by the morning.

Local area residents can get additional information on the Oak Fire by calling (844) 668-3473. A map of the areas under evacuation orders is available online. A full list of evacuated areas and road closures has been posted on the Mariposa County Sheriff's Office Facebook page.

KPIX correspondent Betty Yu contributed to this report

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