Firefighter killed while battling blaze near Yosemite National Park

A helicopter gathers water from the Merced River to fight the Ferguson fire Saturday along Highway 140 in Mariposa County. (Andrew Kuhn / AP)

A firefighter was killed Saturday morning while battling a wildfire in the Sierra National Forest, officials said.

Braden Varney, a heavy equipment operator with Cal Fire, died at the scene as crews battled the Ferguson fire in the rugged area near Yosemite National Park, said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean.

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Varney, 36, of Mariposa had served in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit for a decade. He left behind a wife and two young children, according to the agency.

“He was a community member. That’s where he lived, protecting the area where he grew up,” McLean said.

McLean said Varney’s death is still under investigation. Varney’s job involved operating bulldozers, and he was working on the line with teams trying to contain the fire when he was killed, McLean said. The area where firefighters were working is generally inaccessible, with rough and steep terrain.

The Ferguson fire, which started about 10:30 p.m. Friday near El Portal in Mariposa County, had burned 150 acres and was 5% contained as of Saturday afternoon, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Last year, firefighter Cory Iverson died of burns and smoke inhalation while battling the Thomas fire in Ventura County.

McLean said he couldn’t recall firefighter deaths coming so close together in California in many years. He said that this year, tens of thousands more acres have burned in the state than last year.

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“We’re talking very extreme fire behavior,” he said. “Everybody just needs to be so careful.”

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