Blaze near Yosemite that killed firefighter only 5% contained

MARIPOSA COUNTY, Calif. — A fire near Yosemite National Park that claimed the life of a California firefighter has grown to more than 13,000 acres and is only 5% contained, officials said Tuesday.

Braden Varney, 36, a heavy fire equipment operator, was killed over the weekend while battling the fire, said officials with fire protection agency Cal Fire.

Varney was fatally injured when the bulldozer he was operating to make a fire line rolled over, according to Frank Polizzi, public information officer with the California Department of Industrial Relations. Varney leaves behind his wife, Jessica, daughter Malhea, 5, and son Nolan, 3.

Gov. Jerry Brown extended his “deepest sympathies” and ordered Capitol flags lowered to honor the firefighter.

Nearly 1,500 personnel were struggling to contain the 13,082-acre blaze, dubbed the Ferguson Fire, along the western edge of Yosemite in Mariposa County. It is threatening residences in the Jerseydale, Mariposa Pines, Clearing House and Incline areas, officials said.

No structures have been reported as damaged or destroyed, fire officials said.

“Weather is expected to remain hot and dry for the next seven days, with isolated thunderstorms possible over the Sierra crest,” the US Forest Service said.

Thick smoke hampered firefighters’ efforts Monday until the late afternoon, the US Forest Service said, when “conditions changed as the fire began to actively move southwest,” and “clearer air allowed retardant drops using fixed-wing tankers to effectively slow fire spread.”

The short-term forecast does not appear to help firefighters, with conditions expected “to remain hot and dry for the next seven days, with isolated thunderstorms possible over the Sierra Crest,” according to the USFS.

Despite the blaze, Yosemite National Park remains open. But the fire has forced the closure of part of Highway 140, one of the western entrances to the park. Forest Service officials said visitors will need to find alternate routes into the park.

“Due to continued hot and dry conditions over the next 5 days we urge you to be vigilant with your safety,” the Forest Service said. “With decreased visibility due to the smoke please stay cautious and be aware while driving in and around the fire area.”

The Ferguson Fire is just one of several fires currently burning across the state, which has faced years of devastating and deadly wildfires causing billions of dollars in damage.