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Man saves house from El Portal fire with rake, chainsaw, a final plea

Man saves house from El Portal fire with a rake, chainsaw and some last minute help

The Yosemite community of Foresta sits atop a hill.

On Saturday, Jason Torlano, 39, got a call from a friend asking him to help save her ranch from the El Portal fire, which has now burned more than 2,600 acres and is less than 5% contained. The first thing Torlano did was note the wind.

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FOR THE RECORD

An earlier version of this post said stretches of California 120 east of Groveland are closed. Highway 120 remains open all the way across the Sierra Nevada. Big Oak Flat Road is closed from Crane Flat to El Portal Road.

An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of Kylie Chappell as Kylie Chappelle.

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"It was blowing upslope. I figured there was less than an hour till it reached Foresta," he said.

As he raced from Yosemite Valley to Foresta on the west side of the park, cars were streaming out. Authorities evacuated Foresta, Old El Portal and several campgrounds. Bears were lumbering into Foresta, driven by the fire.

When Torlano reached Spur Ranch, the fire was a half-mile away. He estimated the flames at 200 to 300 feet. He told his friend, Kylie Chappell, to pack everything, grab the two dogs — Buddy and Spur — and leave.

Alone, he tried to save the ranch.

It had belonged to Chappell's aunt, Shirley Sargent, the well-known historian whose books are still in every Yosemite gift shop.

"Say you're a tourist in the valley. You may look up and see a pillar of rock and say, 'Wow, look at that,' and then you remember from what you've read that a woman first climbed it in 1875. Wouldn't that make it more singular to you, more exciting?" Sargent told The Times in 1985.

In 1990, fire destroyed the remote ranch, but Sargent rebuilt. It's almost three miles up a dirt road, and Torlano figured firefighters didn't know it was there.

He started raking. He felt he was safe because he could escape to Foresta's claim to fame — Big Meadow, a wide, grassy expanse that makes tourists gawk as they descend into Yosemite Valley on Highway 120.

In 2009, Yosemite fire officials ignited the Big Meadow for a controlled burn, intended to remove fuels and lessen the wildfire threat to Foresta. But it escaped control lines and burned 7,500 acres. Foresta was evacuated and it took 1,300 personnel and $15 million to contain the fire.

Torlano heard air-drop planes come just as the flames moved onto the ranch. Growing up in Yosemite he'd seen many fires and many air drops, but this time the sight stopped him. He watched the retardant fall and the flames cut down to grass-fire level. Still, as the fire rolled past, the deck caught fire.

Torlano grabbed a chainsaw and cut off part of the deck to save the house. A car near a woodpile next to the house burst into flames. Torlano could barely see his hand in front of his face because of the smoke. He got in his truck and went to look for firefighters.

He ran into a California Department of Forestry and Fire crew.

"Please, can you follow me?" he asked. "If you can get some water on this place you can still save the house."

They did. The ranch and two cars were burned. But Sargent's home stands.

Another Foresta home did burn. One of the helicopter crew firefighters lived there with his wife and 1-year-old daughter, according to an outpouring of sympathy on social media.

On Monday, Foresta and Old El Portal remained evacuated but seemingly out of immediate danger, as were campgrounds at Crane Flat, Bridalveil Creek and Yosemite Creek.

Half Dome and other Yosemite landmarks were shrouded by smoke.

About 800 firefighters were at the scene with more on the way. The fire is just south of last year's Rim fire, which burned more than 250,000 acres and is seared into the memories of residents.

"Anyone who saw that rising cloud every evening during the Rim fire — that's not something you forget," Torlano said. "People are really on edge. We've had three dry winters. It's really hot. And there's a memory of how fast a wildfire can get out of control."

The park remains open but Big Oak Flat Road is closed from Crane Flat to El Portal Road. The park can be reached on Highways 140 and 41.

Diana Marcum cover the Central Valley. Follow her on Twitter @DianaMarcum.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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