California fire crews race to save Gold Rush town

Mariposa - The town of Mariposa, with its century-old saloons and covered sidewalks, normally bustles with summer visitors on their way to Yosemite National, Park but the Gold Rush-era hamlet was mostly empty as ash rained down and heavy smoke from a nearby blaze darkened the sky.

The blaze in the Sierra Nevada foothills threatened hundreds of homes and historic buildings, including a wood courthouse founded in 1854 and touted as the oldest active courthouse west of the Rocky Mountains.

The fire did not grow significantly overnight, but state fire officials said on Friday that 58 homes and 60 outbuildings have been destroyed. The wildfire has scorched 298km², threatening at least 1 500 homes.

The fire was 15% contained.

About 60km southwest of the national park, Mariposa's charming main street has covered sidewalks and historic wood and brick buildings that house antique shops, restaurants, pizza parlours and art galleries, offering a taste of the Gold Rush days.

 A scorched car rests next to a residence levelled by the Detwiler fire near Mariposa. (Noah Berger, AP)

Carol Dewey, who owns a small bed and breakfast in downtown Mariposa, was one of several business owners allowed in on Thursday to check on their shops in the town under a mandatory evacuation order.

"The place is like a ghost town," Dewey said. "This fire has really devastated the area, business is just flat."

Dewey, 64, said people in their 30s have opened several new businesses and wine bars, attracting lots of young tourists. Now, they stand empty as firefighters try to keep the flames away from the town with 2 000 residents.

More than 3 800 firefighters were battling the blaze that has forced almost 5 000 people from homes in and around a half-dozen small communities.


      An air tanker drops retardant while battling a wildfire fire near Mariposa. (Noah Berger, AP)

Only fire trucks and other emergency vehicles travelled on Thursday on Highway 140, the main road to Yosemite National Park and the town's main street.

The fire came within a kilometre of Mariposa, but crews have been able to keep it out of the town by dropping red retardant on the flames burning on nearby slopes and by using bulldozers and hand crews to build fire brakes, said Cal Fire spokesperson Jason Motta.

"We saw the fire come over the ridge on the north side of Mariposa and it crested the ridge just at sundown" when it was cooling down, Motta said, adding the lower temperatures helped fire crews stop the wildfire's progress.

                 The sun sets in a smoky skyline in Mariposa, California. (Josh Edelson, AFP)

"The imminent threat to Mariposa is over, but fire crews are maintaining the line to control the threat," he said.

At its closest, the blaze was still about 56km from the boundary of Yosemite, where campgrounds were open, park spokesperson Scott Gediman said.

The fire closed one of several roads into the park during its busy summer season, and rangers warned visitors with respiratory problems to be mindful of the smoky haze over the park's landmark Half Dome rock face, Gediman said.

Yosemite does not appear at risk from the fire, which was moving south, away from the park, Motta said.

Record rain and snowfall in the mountains this winter ended California's five-year drought. But that has increased the challenge for crews battling flames feeding on dense vegetation.

Statewide, firefighters were battling 17 wildfires.

Governor Jerry Brown has declared an emergency, bolstering the state's resources to battle the fire.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Lockdown For
Voting Booth
Who do you think is going to win the 2020 US election?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Biden is going to take it
46% - 5186 votes
It's four more years for Trump
54% - 6141 votes
Brent Crude
All Share
Top 40
Financial 15
Industrial 25
Resource 10
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes morningstar logo