Yosemite highway closed as crews battle major wildfire
WildFire (Reuters)

A California wildfire burning out of control at the edge of Yosemite National Park that has killed one firefighter and closed a major route into the park mushroomed overnight as crews fought on Monday to protect a string of small communities.

The so-called Ferguson Fire, which broke out on Friday night near Savage Trading Post about 20 miles southwest of the park’s boundary in the Sierra Nevada mountains, had blackened some 14 square miles of forest land as of Monday afternoon, according to the Inciweb federal wildfire tracking website.

“It’s very, very steep and very, very rugged terrain, and there are not many opportunities in these mountains to directly fight this fire,” fire spokeswoman Adrienne Freeman said, adding that crews had cut containment lines around only about 2 percent of the blaze.

Thick smoke was limiting visibility in canyons, Freeman said, making it difficult for water-dropping helicopters and fixed-wing tankers to fly in low over the conflagration, especially in narrow canyons.

She said winds that were expected to pick up in the late afternoon and evening hours, clearing out smoke enough to let aircraft assist in the fight, were a “double-edged sword” because they could also fan the flames.

Highway 140, a key entrance route into Yosemite, was shut and firefighters were holding flames along the road, according to Incwieb.

“Structure protection engines have arrived and are setting up to protect homes and businesses between the Cedar Lodge area and Hite’s Cove. Additional engines are being inserted into Jerseydale and Yosemite West to formulate structure protection plans,” the website said.

Firefighter Braden Varney was killed on Saturday while operating a bulldozer on the fire line, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.

Varney is the 10th U.S. wildland firefighter killed in the line of duty this year, according to National Interagency Fire Center data.

California has had its worst start to the fire season in a decade, with more than 220,421 acres burned so far, according to the agency.

U.S. wildfires have already burned more than 3.3 million acres this year, more than the year-to-date average of about 3 million acres in the past 10 years.

As the summer continues, the risk of large wildfires is set to ease in much of the Southwest and Rocky Mountain due to expected summer rains, but risk levels will remain high in California through at least October, according to the agency.

Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Leslie Adler