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‘An insane amount of heat’ as fire near Yosemite National Park moves with frightening speed

It has destroyed 29 structures, temporarily cut off power to Yosemite National Park and threatened the historic gold-mining town of Mariposa, sending its residents fleeing. It’s sent its smoke as far away as Idaho, and it burned so hot that it created its own weather system.

If the Detwiler fire, which has moved with frightening speed this week through the rugged terrain of rural Mariposa County, was looking to make a dramatic statement, it succeeded.

The blaze — which has forced 4,000 people from their homes — nearly doubled in size overnight Tuesday, exploding from 25,000 acres to 45,724 acres, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Wednesday.

Update: Flames destroy dozens of structures as 70,000-acre wildfire rages near Yosemite »

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By Wednesday evening, the fire was only 7% contained and had burned about 48,000 acres, according to Cal Fire. It was burning about 35 miles west of Yosemite National Park and had gotten within a mile of central Mariposa, officials said.

The flames are being fed by tall grass and overgrown shrubs that sprouted along the central Sierra Nevada foothills during the winter rains, said Jordan Motta, a fire captain and Cal Fire spokesman.

The rich fuel source has created fire activity that “we haven’t seen in the last seven or eight years,” he said. Officials said the fire also was burning in an area where there are many dead trees, killed by bark beetles and years of drought.

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As the conflagration snaked through hills and canyons, conditions on the ground and around the blaze became so intense that a large pyrocumulus cloud formed. So-called fire clouds develop when a blaze is so hot that it can create its own environment, said Jim Andersen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Hanford.

“Any time you see a fire with a pyrocumulus, you know the fire is really roaring,” he said. “It takes an insane amount of heat.”

“That cloud was a monster,” said Janet Kirkland, 72, who fled her home on rural Hunters Valley Road on Sunday with her two dogs, Gizzy and Precious.

Standing outside an evacuation shelter at Oakhurst Evangelical Free Church in the small town of Oakhurst, an exhausted Kirkland clutched a water bottle and tried to cool herself in the 92-degree heat.

She said she didn’t know if her home was still standing. She had initially gone to a shelter at a Mariposa elementary school but was forced to move again when the whole town of Mariposa was evacuated. She stayed at the church along with about 70 other evacuees.

On Wednesday, Kirkland worried about her pet parrot, Rookie, whose cage didn’t fit in her Jeep. After she saw flames cresting a hill near her house, she left within 15 minutes and had to leave Rookie behind.

Rookie likes to imitate the sound of firetruck sirens. But that afternoon, the bird was quiet. Kirkland thinks the parrot sensed something was wrong.

The blaze, which started Sunday east of Lake McClure, had destroyed 29 structures, damaged five more and was threatening an additional 1,500 as of Wednesday night, officials said. More than 3,100 firefighters were on the scene.

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On Tuesday, the Detwiler fire knocked out power to Yosemite National Park for several hours, but crews were able to restore service late that night, said Denny Boyles, spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

The park’s main source of power comes from a 70,000-volt transmission line, which is not in the fire’s path, Boyles said. But that could change if the fire shifts direction. Mobile generators were positioned near the park as a precaution.

“It’s a fluid situation with the fire still burning,” Boyles said.

About 8,500 customers along the Sierra foothills were without power as crews worked to repair lines damaged by the fire, he said. Power lines also were de-energized to protect fire crews battling the blaze.

The fire has made for a hazy few days in Yosemite, where roaring waterfalls fed by a record-setting wet winter have drawn legions of tourists.

Paul Adams, a San Francisco photographer, visited the park Monday. He initially didn’t see or smell any smoke. But then the wind switched. He went up to an overlook on Tioga Pass and saw the haze settling over the Yosemite Valley.

As the sun set, the smoky sky took on an eerie glow. Then, tiny flecks of white started falling around him.

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“It was very, very tiny pieces of ash,” Adams said. “I want to call it almost like hair dandruff. Then, when I went to Mariposa, the ash that was falling was about the size of a snowflake, more pronounced.”

As he left the area the next morning, he saw a traffic jam — of firetrucks.

The Detwiler fire has produced huge amounts of smoke that could be seen in satellite imagery near Boise, Idaho, more than 600 miles away, said Andersen of the National Weather Service.

There is “absolutely no rain in the forecast” in the area of the fire for at least the next several days, he said.

Outside the shelter at the Oakhurst church Wednesday afternoon, Barbara Milazzo, 53, and her daughter Jessica, 15, sat in their minivan, using a quilt hung over the vehicle’s door to shield them from the sun. They had spent the previous night in a small wooden trailer attached to the back of the van, equipped with a straw mattress, blankets and pillows.

Milazzo spent the day listening to the radio for updates and texting and calling her friends, some of whom she said have lost property in the fire.

When Milazzo first heard about the fire Monday, she drove to a friend’s home in Hornitos to “fire-sit.” The next day, she saw a plume of black smoke erupt over the hills, and she began packing up her friend’s house before rushing to her own home in Mariposa, where an evacuation advisory was in effect.

With the power out at her house, Milazzo, a teacher, decided to spend the night in the evacuation center.

“The unknown is the biggest stress,” she said. “It’s a small town. We all know each other. We just don’t know how their houses are.”

megan.bernhard@latimes.com

Twitter: @meg_bernhard

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

Twitter: @VeronicaRochaLA

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Twitter: @haileybranson

​​​​​​​Bernhard reported from Mariposa, Rocha and Branson-Potts from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report from Mariposa County.

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