French Fire Threatens to Close CA Gateway to Yosemite National Park

July 6, 2024
The historic Gold Rush town of Mariposa and an entry point for Yosemite National Park are threatened by the French Fire.

The blistering, relentlessly hot start to California’s summer took another alarming turn Friday, as a wildfire threatened to burn the Sierra Nevada town of Mariposa, a historic Gold Rush community popular with tourists and one of the main gateways to Yosemite National Park.

The French Fire began on Mariposa’s northern edges Thursday night. It quickly spread to hillsides east of the town’s main street prompting evacuation orders affecting about 1,000 people. Flames raced toward the community’s hospital and high school, and closed Highway 140, one of the main routes into Yosemite.

By Friday afternoon as temperatures hit 107 degrees, firefighters working with bulldozers, hand crews and helicopters had cut containment lines around much of the blaze, apparently saving the town and allowing Highway 140 to reopen. The fire had charred 908 acres and was 15% contained. It was unknown how many structures had burned on the town’s outskirts. Police began to allow evacuated residents in some neighborhoods to return.

“It just took off so quick,” said Jaime Williams, a spokeswoman for Cal Fire’s Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit. “We were fighting to save our community. The crews worked really hard throughout the night. They were able to hold it.”

Yosemite is filled with visitors from around the world for the July Fourth weekend. But the park, 37 miles east of Mariposa, remained open.

“The timing is anything but ideal,” said Tony McDaniel, a spokesman for the Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau. “There is never a good time to have a fire, but during one of the busiest weekends of our tourism season, it comes at a bad time.”

McDaniel, who lives in Mariposa, evacuated with his family Thursday night. He noted that 50% of Mariposa County’s economy runs on tourism. Since 2013, Yosemite has been closed multiple times for wildfires burning in or around the park, choking smoke drifting into Yosemite Valley, and the COVID pandemic.

“We’ve had a serious run of bad luck,” he said. “But this community has become incredibly resilient. We rely on each other. This situation will be no different. We’ll get through this and recover. With this fire, it seems like things are going in the right direction.”

California is off to a difficult fire season this summer. After two below-average wildfire years due to wet fall and winter weather, this year 145,112 acres already have burned in California since Jan. 1 — nearly five times the five-year average for this time of year, according to Cal Fire.

The wet winters caused a significant amount of grass and brush to grow. And the searing heat wave this week, with temperatures hitting 110 degrees or more in parts of the East Bay, Central Valley, Sierra Nevada and Southern California, dried the landscape out quickly.

Meanwhile Friday, firefighters began to gain the upper hand on another high-profile wildfire, the Thompson Fire, which had threatened the town of Oroville in Butte County earlier in the week, at one point burning brush on the face of Oroville Dam, the nation’s tallest dam. Firefighters had the fire 46% contained by mid-day Friday and were beginning to allow some evacuees to return home. The blaze destroyed 25 buildings and burned 3,789 acres. Roughly 2,200 firefighters continued to battle it, with temperatures expected to reach as high as 115 degrees in Oroville on Saturday.

Although fire danger can go up and down depending on the amount of rain and snow, or unique events like dry lightning storms, arson and sudden heat waves, climate change is driving temperature trends higher, experts said, exacerbating risk.

“We’ve created this situation,” said Leroy Westerling, a climate and fire scientist at UC Merced. “We are going to spend the rest of our lives learning how to manage it.”

Westerling lives in Mariposa. He had less than 30 minutes to evacuate from his home Thursday night.

“I was relaxing on my day off and I heard helicopters,” he said. “I went outside and there was really dense smoke. The whole hill behind my house was on fire.”

He returned Friday, praising fire crews for saving the town and his family home. He noted that the area where the fire — whose cause investigators had not yet learned – burned east of downtown is a ridge where vegetation is regularly thinned and fire breaks already had been cut.

“We got lucky,” he said. “It wasn’t as windy as it could have been. There weren’t dozens of big fires burning at the same time around the state the way there were in other years like 2020.”

Hélène Halcrow lives at and owns the Yosemite Plaisance Bed & Breakfast in Mariposa with her husband, Ron.

She warned her guests about the fire before the B&B received an evacuation order Thursday night.

“I could tell things weren’t looking good,” she said. By that night, the B&B was fully evacuated. The B&B lost one night of full occupancy so far, with two rooms canceled Friday.

If their building had electricity, the couple planned to begin cleaning rooms and welcome back their one remaining guest. If not, they planned to spend another night with family.

“Of course there will be a big financial loss,” Halcrow said.

Closer to Yosemite’s entry gates, in El Portal about 30 miles to the east of Mariposa, the wind direction kept skies mostly clear.

“It’s not smoky up here at all,” said Liz Skelton, who owns the Yosemite Blue Butterfly Inn Bed & Breakfast in El Portal, with her husband, Ron. “You’d never know that fire was going on.”

The Blue Butterfly’s four suites were fully booked Friday night, and Skelton contacted all of her guests to reassure them and provide alternate directions while Highway 140 was closed. The restaurant next door lost power for a while. Luckily, the B&B has a generator, she said.

“It’s just part of living in the woods,” Skelton said.

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