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A fast-moving wildfire near Yosemite remains uncontained


A state of emergency has been declared in Mariposa County, Calif., after a fast-moving wildfire burned thousands of acres over the weekend.


The Oak Fire is California's largest wildfire this year. It sent thousands of residents fleeing their homes in the mountain communities near Yosemite National Park. And that's about 150 miles east of San Francisco. Thousands of firefighters are trying to cope with steep terrain and scorching weather conditions that are fueling the growing blaze.

MARTÍNEZ: Joshua Yeager with member station KVPR has been reporting from the area. Joshua, you were in the town of Mariposa just a few miles south of where this fire has been spreading. What'd you learned?

JOSHUA YEAGER, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, the Oak Fire is 15,600 acres, with no containment. And Cal Fire officials are concerned with the explosive rate of growth that they're seeing. The fire became California's biggest of the year so far within hours of igniting. Mike Van Loben Sels is a local Cal Fire chief, and he tells me this is one of the most extreme fires that he's seen in 30 years.

MIKE VAN LOBEN SELS: We had some very, very extreme fire behavior, some very, very extreme spotting.

YEAGER: And spotting, for those who don't know, is when embers fly ahead of the fire and spark new ones. He says that's happening two or three miles from Oak Fire. And those new fires could merge with the existing one, growing the blaze and making it much harder to control.

MARTÍNEZ: And, Joshua, what have you heard from people who have had to flee?

YEAGER: Well, almost 4,000 people have been evacuated already. Some of them are gathering at the Mariposa Elementary School, which is run by the Red Cross. The organization says about a hundred people have used their shelter in the last two days. And ten structures have been destroyed so far by the Oak Fire, according to the official tally. It could be weeks before people are able to return to their homes, unfortunately. And some evacuees have said that the hotel rooms are sparse and expensive. One of the evacuees I spoke to was Marty Vittore. He and his wife, Debra, live in the small mountain community of Lushmeadows, which is in the evacuation zone.

MARTY VITTORE: I stepped out on my back porch and just saw a boiling cloud of, you know, smoke just boiling off. And you knew it was close right away.

YEAGER: And we should say that a lot of people, because they were forced to flee so quickly, had to leave pets behind. But emergency workers are trying to rescue them, too.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. How worried are fire officials about what might happen?

YEAGER: Well, like I said, this fire is just growing at an alarming rate. Since Friday, it became the largest in the state. And even the International Space Station tweeted that they could see smoke from outer space. And as you said, the governor declared a local emergency here, which makes this fire a top priority for officials. There's just a vast amount of dead trees in this particular area of the forest that's been weakened by our ongoing drought here in California and the West. And bark beetle infestations killed thousands and thousands of trees.

What's making matters worse is in this particular area, there hasn't been any modern recorded fire history since the 1920s. So that bone-dry vegetation combined with the scorching weather - it's just - it's a catalyst for this fire to spread really quickly. And the forecast is not on firefighters' side - low humidity coupled with triple-digit temperatures moving into next week in August. Emergency workers tell me they're preparing for a long, long fight.

MARTÍNEZ: Joshua Yeager is with member station KVPR. Joshua, thanks a lot.

YEAGER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joshua Yeager