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Telegraph fire in Mariposa County keeps burning, only 10 percent contained

Firefighters Mike Reinhold, right, and Tyler Jonson of the Orange County Fire Authority keep an eye on the flames making their way toward the Merced River near Briceburg Sunday, July 27, 2008. The firefighters were making sure Telegraphy Fire did not cross the river.
CRAIG KOHLRUSS/THE FRESNO BEE
Firefighters Mike Reinhold, right, and Tyler Jonson of the Orange County Fire Authority keep an eye on the flames making their way toward the Merced River near Briceburg Sunday, July 27, 2008. The firefighters were making sure Telegraphy Fire did not cross the river. CRAIG KOHLRUSS/THE FRESNO BEE Fresno Bee Staff Photo

UPDATE - 7:00 p.m. More than 3,100 firefighters are battling a wildfire raging not far from Yosemite National Park this evening. The fire has consumed more than 26,000 acres, 12 homes and 27 outbuildings. Cal Fire says the blaze is only 10 percent contained -- unchanged from the agency's report this morning. Cal Fire says about 4,000 homes are threatened in the towns of Midpines, Briceburg, Mariposa, Greeley Hill, Coulterville, Bear Valley, and Mt. Bullion Camp.



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UPDATE - 3:00 p.m. Highway 140 has been closed between Mariposa and Yosemite National Park as a wildfire in the Midpines area threatened to jump the road. The fire has burned about 27,000 acres and is 10 percent contained, Cal Fire officials say.



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UPDATE - 10:40 a.m. The wildfire near Yosemite National Park that has forced hundreds of people from their homes has spread to more than 26,000 acres and is only 10 percent contained. A statement from Cal Fire says the fire "is burning with a rapid rate of spread in multiple directions."

More than 2,500 people are fighting the fire, and two dozen aircraft are being used, Cal Fire says. Three firefighters were treated for minor injuries, said Mike Mohler, a spokesman for Cal Fire.

A community meeting for residents affected by the fire is scheduled for 7 p.m. tonight at Mariposa High School.



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MARIPOSA -- A fast-moving wildfire near Yosemite National Park claimed 12 homes and prompted hundreds more evacuations Sunday, as hundreds of firefighters struggled to keep the fire from engulfing nearby communities.

Fire crews had built containment lines around 16 percent of the more than 26,000-acre fire by Sunday afternoon, but by late Sunday night containment was down to 10 percent.

Still, fire officials ordered additional evacuations of about 430 homes in the Greeley Hill area, in the Mykleoaks subdivision, and along Whitlock Road, French Camp Road and Grosjean Road, said Rick Benson, Mariposa County administrative officer. On Saturday, about 170 homes in the Midpines area were evacuated.

The Telegraph fire, yet another in an already deadly California fire season, continued to threaten nearly 2,000 homes in the Mariposa County foothills that serve as Yosemite's western gateway.

In Mariposa, where the fire crept within two miles, hospital officials prepared to evacuate 29 patients to valley hospitals or have firefighters surround the hospital to defend it if flames get close.

In Yosemite, hotels and restaurants got by on generators after power lines to Yosemite Valley were shut down because of the potential risk to firefighters working beneath the wires.

The fire had not caused any reported deaths or injuries, but had destroyed 12 homes and 27 other structures by late Sunday night, officials said.

The threat of fire led authorities Sunday to issue an evacuation warning to people living in the communities east of Highway 49 from Mykleoaks Road south to the Highway 140 junction and in communities west of Highway 140 from Mariposa north to Briceburg.

Nearly 2,000 firefighters from as far away as San Diego were fighting the blaze Sunday.

A team of 17 people from Stanislaus County left Saturday evening for another blaze, the Serpentine fire in Tuolumne County at Highway 49, just north of the Mariposa County line.

On the strike team were members of the Modesto, Oakdale Rural and Oakdale City fire departments and the Salida and Stanislaus Consolidated fire protection districts, said Chief Gary Hinshaw of the Stanislaus County Office of Emergency Services.

The team was scheduled to be shifted Sunday night to the Telegraph fire, Hinshaw said.

Two engines from Oakdale City and the West Stanislaus County Fire Protection District were dispatched Sunday afternoon to the Madera fairgrounds. They were likely heading for the Telegraph fire as well, Hinshaw said, adding that the fire season has been a busy one for local firefighters.

"We can't get them home for very long," he said. "They get home and they go right back out. We have a lot of weary firefighters looking at a very long fire season."

The Telegraph fire started Friday, apparently sparked by a target shooter, fire investigators said. It spread along the steep Merced River valley and exploded across 16,000 acres Saturday.

"It was a firestorm," said Midpines resident Eric McClard, 26, as he recalled his 30-minute escape from his home after being ordered to evacuate Saturday afternoon.

Neighbors told him Sunday that his home had been destroyed, though he hadn't confirmed that with state fire officials.

His mother, Kelly McClard, said she knew they were in danger when the sky turned black with smoke and flames crested the nearest hill.

"We had to use our headlights because the smoke was so thick," she said. "It seemed like night, and then we got halfway down the street and it was a beautiful day again."

Chris Moyle, a 23-year-old state firefighter stationed in Los Banos, said he and his fellow firefighters had faced "extreme fire behavior" as they worked to protect a home in the Midpines area through Saturday night and Sunday morning.

A haze of smoke hung over Mariposa on Sunday. To the north, a line of rising smoke that marked the fire's southern edge could be seen stretching from Mount Bullion in the west to Highway 140 in the east.

Ashes drifted like snowflakes across Mariposa, and falling ash was reported as far away as Clovis on Sunday. State authorities warned motorists to avoid driving on Highway 140 between Mariposa and Yosemite on Sunday night because of low visibility and heavy fire vehicle traffic.

Larry Laity "slept good" Friday night in his bed on Mount Bullion Ridge Road, hours after the fire started. He heard it was under control Saturday morning, and he headed down the hill for a one-hour trip to Merced to pick up some birthday presents for his nephews.

He got a phone call about 2 p.m. and was told the wind had shifted.

"We flew back up the mountain," he said. "The area up the road, we could see the fire. The smoke was heavy."

Laity, 64, was greeted by an officer, who asked for his identification, then took him to his house, where he and his wife, Joan, had 10 minutes to "clear out and grab whatever we could grab."

Family antiques, wedding albums, pictures and important papers were taken from the 2,000-square-foot home they have lived in for 12 years.

"The important stuff," he said.

A volunteer and shelter manager for the Red Cross, Laity headed back to the evacuation center, where he helped set up cots and fed 40 or so evacuees and volunteers.

He said all the work Saturday night and Sunday helped keep his mind off what was happening a few miles away.

But when he and his wife crawled onto their cots, he said, they spent about three hours talking about more things they could have taken.

On Sunday, he kept track of the status of his house with binoculars. He said he could see a neighbor's house about a quarter-mile from their home, and it's fine, along with the trees that are between the two homes.

In Mariposa, residents worried that the fast-moving fire might sweep down on their tiny community of 1,800.

"I just know they don't have it contained yet, and the wind's picking up," said Dorrie Pereira, 27, a waitress at Sal's Mexican Restaurant.

The staff at John C. Fremont Hospital in Mariposa made plans to move 29 patients to hospitals in the valley if officials gave the evacuation order.

"We can see the smoke and sometimes the flames from outside our emergency room," said Maureen Spacke, director of nursing.

Twenty-six of the patients, ranging in age from their 80s to 101, are in the hospital's long-term care unit, and the other three are in the acute care section.

Buses and ambulances would move the patients, Spacke said.

To protect firefighters battling flames beneath power lines, electricity was cut to a wide area, including the national park, fire officials said.

When Pacific Gas & Electric Co. might restore power to Yosemite Valley remained unclear Sunday afternoon. The transmission line that fed power to Yosemite was destroyed in the fire Saturday, said PG&E spokesman James Guidi Jr.

The utility was bringing two mobile generators to the area from Sacramento Sunday, and they should provide power to about 560 mostly residential customers north of Mariposa by this afternoon, Guidi said.

About 471 residential and commercial customers are in the area, and some, but not all, also could see their power restored today, Guidi said. He said he didn't know whether public places in Yosemite Valley were included.

When PG&E crews can repair the downed transmission line into Yosemite is uncertain, Guidi said.

Still, visitors continued to enter the park Sunday, though Yosemite Park Ranger Julie Chavez did not have any numbers. On a typical summer day, about 18,000 visitors come into the park, she said.

Some campers were leaving because of the fire, but Chavez said it was not a mass exodus.

"There is more space available than we usually have this time of season because of the smoke."

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso and Bee assistant city editor Brian Clark contributed to this report.

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