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More evacuations ordered, two firefighters injured as Ferguson fire grows to 21,000 acres

More evacuations ordered, two firefighters injured as Ferguson fire grows to 21,000 acres
The Ferguson fire burns in unincorporated Mariposa County on Monday. (Noah Berger / Associated Press)

Just days after the death of a Cal Fire bulldozer operator, two more firefighters have been injured while battling the Ferguson fire near Yosemite National Park, officials said.

One firefighter broke a leg and was being treated at a hospital, and the other suffered heat-related injuries, authorities said Thursday. Michael Whitaker, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said he did not know where the firefighters were injured or what agencies they belonged to.

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Whitaker said 2,100 personnel are working to contain the blaze, which has burned through 21,041 acres of rugged, often inaccessible terrain that is full of dead trees, brush and pine needles. The detritus has served as a tinderbox for the fast-moving fire, which was 7% contained as of Thursday morning, a slight improvement from the night before.

On Thursday afternoon, new evacuations were ordered for El Portal Trailer Court, a mobile home community just north of Highway 140 to the east of the fire, near Yosemite National Park.

The reasons for the order are twofold: thunderstorms to the east of the park, about 30 miles away from the fire, are threatening to move closer and bring erratic winds that could shift the direction of the flame or cause spot fires, authorities said. Additionally, in the coming days crews will focus on containing the fire on its eastern border, which is closer to that community.

Whitaker said 166 fire engines, 21 water tenders, 18 helicopters, 55 hand crews, 29 bulldozers and numerous air tankers were involved in battling the blaze. Aircraft are having a hard time dropping water because the smoke has been clinging low to the ground, reducing visibility.

Cal Fire heavy equipment operator Braden Varney died when his bulldozer tumbled down a steep canyon as he was cutting away vegetation to protect the community of Jerseydale. He was found dead on July 14.

As of 4 p.m. Thursday, the monsoonal moisture and thunderstorms that officials were preparing for Wednesday had not materialized, but the chances of thunderstorms remained Friday, according to fire officials.

(Los Angeles Times)

While rain could help tame the fire, thunderstorms also pose a risk to firefighters trying to navigate already difficult terrain, and they bring lightning that could ignite new fires as well as erratic winds.

“When that happens, our fire can actually change any direction ... 360 degrees,” Whitaker said.

The winds can affect a fire even if the storms are far away, officials said.

Thunderstorms “build and build and build, and when they do finally decide to rain, the force of the rain drags … air with it, and when that air hits the ground it shoots out in all directions,” said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jim Mackensen. Those winds can reach up to 30 mph and shift the direction of a fire, he said.

No structures have been damaged as the fire rages through terrain that in some areas has not seen fire since the 1920s. Mandatory evacuation orders are still in place for the Jerseydale and Mariposa Pines communities, Cedar Lodge and Indian Flat Campground, Savage’s Trading Post and Sweetwater Ridge.

Crews are working to prevent the fire, which is mainly growing to the southeast, from crossing Highway 140 to the north and threatening Yosemite National Park to the east and residential communities to the south, Whitaker said.

Where crews are unable to fight the fire directly or build containment lines close to it, they are building multiple contingency lines using bulldozers, chain saws and hand tools to create more barriers for the fire, he said. Those lines leave swaths of unburned fuel between firefighters and the fire, which could be dangerous if winds shift. In some cases, crews are starting backfires to burn the fuel before the larger fire can reach it.

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Meanwhile in Southern California, a fire near Las Cruces in Santa Barbara County that burned 80 acres and briefly shut down a portion of Highway 1 on Wednesday evening was 40% contained as of Thursday morning and expected to be fully contained by Thursday night, according to county officials. The highway was reopened Wednesday night.

4:35 p.m.: This story was updated with information about new evacuation orders

This story was originally published at 11:45 a.m.

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