It’s taken about two weeks, but crews battling a wildfire west of Yosemite National Park have nearly completed defenses around those communities most at risk of burning, authorities say.
Firefighters have worked around the clock since the Ferguson fire began July 13 to complete containment lines around the Jerseydale, Clearing House and Incline neighborhoods.
In that time, one firefighter operating a bulldozer was killed when his vehicle rolled down a hillside and six others have been hurt – their injuries ranging from back strains to broken bones and heat exhaustion, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jim Mackensen.
“The ground we’re working on has some of the most unforgiving topography in the central Sierra,” Mackensen said.
Highway shoulders lead to sharp cliffs and boulders are but a footstep away from rolling downhill onto fire crews.
“We’ve got this chunk of gulch here called Devil’s Gulch. People go in there and never come back out,” Mackensen said. “It’s a really, really steep hole choked with brush and rocks and the fire is burning in that.”
Where the flames are more easily accessible, crews are battling the blaze among groves of dead standing timber destroyed by an epic bark beetle infestation and years of drought, Mackensen said.
On Sunday, crews were conducting a back burn – igniting brush ahead of the fire to eliminate its potential fuel – when a towering, burning tree fell across their path. That ignited a 7-acre blaze that crews had to scramble to put out, forcing them to stop their work on containing the larger blaze, Mackensen said.
And where it’s not the dead trees complicating matters, Mackensen said, the blaze is pushing through forest that hasn’t burned in more than a century.
“The terrain is what it is. We got some really nasty terrain in California,” he said.
So far, the Ferguson fire has scorched 33,743 acres mostly south of Highway 140 along the south fork of the Merced River, the Forest Service said.
Crews expect the fire to burn deeper into the Sierra and Stanislaus national forests in the coming days. Firefighters are scraping the earth clean of brush down to the root up to a mile south and east of the fire’s current perimeter so they can set up defensive positions, Mackensen said.
The fire’s edge is about a mile and a half outside of Yosemite National Park.
About 3,500 structures are considered threatened by the fire and more than 3,000 firefighters are attacking the blaze.
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