Thousands have been ordered to flee California wildfires near Yosemite

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WAWONA, Calif. — A fast-moving brush fire near Yosemite National Park erupted into one of California’s largest wildfires of the year on Saturday, prompting evacuation orders for thousands of people and cutting electricity to more than 2,000 homes and businesses.

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The Oak Fire began Friday afternoon southwest of the park near the town of Midpines in Mariposa County and by Saturday had grown to nearly 15 square miles (38 square kilometers), according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. It erupted as firefighters made progress against an earlier blaze that had burned to the edge of a grove of giant sequoias in the southernmost part of Yosemite Park.

Evacuation orders were put into effect Saturday for more than 6,000 people living for several miles in the sparsely populated rural area, said Daniel Patterson, spokesman for the Sierra National Forest.

More than 400 firefighters were battling the blaze, along with helicopters, other planes and bulldozers, facing harsh conditions including hot weather, low humidity and very dry vegetation caused by the worst drought in decades , Patterson said.

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“Explosive fire behavior is a challenge for firefighters,” Cal Fire said in a statement on Saturday describing Oak Fire activity as “extreme with frequent runs, spot fires and group fires.”

By Saturday morning, the fire had destroyed 10 residential and commercial structures, damaged five others and threatened 2,000 other structures, Cal Fire said. The fire caused numerous road closures, including the closure of Highway 140 between Carstens Road and Allred Road – blocking one of the main routes into Yosemite.

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California has seen increasingly large and deadly wildfires in recent years as climate change has made the West much hotter and drier over the past 30 years. Scientists said weather will continue to be more extreme and wildfires will be more frequent, destructive and unpredictable.

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“The fire moves quickly. This fire was throwing embers ahead of it up to 2 miles yesterday,” Patterson said. « These are exceptional fire conditions. » The cause of the fire was under investigation.

Pacific Gas & Electric said on its website that more than 2,600 homes and businesses in the area lost power Friday afternoon and there was no indication when it would be restored. « PG&E is unable to access the affected equipment, » the utility said.

On Friday, a barefoot elderly man trying to flee the blaze crashed his sedan into a ditch in a closed area and was helped by firefighters. He was led safely out of the area and does not appear to have suffered any injuries. Several other residents remained at home Friday evening as the fire burned nearby.

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Meanwhile, firefighters made significant progress against a wildfire that started in Yosemite National Park and burned through the Sierra National Forest.

The Washburn Fire was 79% contained on Friday after burning about 7.5 square miles (19.4 square kilometers) of forest. It was one of the biggest fires of the year in California, with the Lost Lake Fire in Riverside County being fully contained in June at 9 square miles (23 square kilometers).

The fire broke out on July 7 and forced the closure of the south entrance to Yosemite and the evacuation of the community of Wawona as it burned on the edge of Mariposa Grove, home to hundreds of giant sequoias, the largest trees in the world by volume.

Wawona Road is tentatively set to reopen on Saturday, according to the park’s website.

Jocelyn Gecker contributed from San Francisco.

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