The first signs of progress in battling the Oak fire raging just outside California’s Yosemite Park came Monday, with the state’s main firefighting agency reporting the flames are now 10 percent contained.
But that hasn’t eased the worries of those in Mariposa County, where the fire has already ravaged 17,000 acres of land. Emmanuel Chavez, a spokesman for Cal Fire, told The Daily Beast the fire’s behavior is still “erratic,” with his colleagues struggling to evacuate thousands of people as the flames exploded to become the state’s largest fire of the year in less than three days.
Chavez said the homes of more than 3,000 people are in immediate danger. More than 2,000 firefighters have been sent to battle the flames, but it’s already claimed seven or eight homes, he said.
Lynda Reynolds-Brown and her husband, Aubrey, evacuated Friday to a nearby elementary school, saying the fire bore down on them quickly. When they spoke with KCRA-TV Sunday, they were still unsure of their home’s fate.
“It was scary when we left because we were getting ashes on us but we had such a visual of this billowing,” said Lynda. “It just seemed like it was above our house and coming our way really quickly.”
“We started getting our stuff together and that’s when I went back up the hill and looked and I’m like, ‘Oh my God,’” added Aubrey.
An official cause of the fire has yet to be released, but Chavez said the likely culprit is a mixture of high winds, drought-parched vegetation, and scorching temps in the Sierra Nevada foothills, conditions that are increasingly common in California due to climate change.
In addition to thousands of homes, the Oak fire appeared to briefly pose a threat to the beloved giant sequoias of Mariposa Grove—some of which are thousands of years old—if it continued to spread at a rapid pace.
“We’re trying to preserve the Mariposa Grove because it’s a beautiful part of our forest,” Chavez said Monday.
The sequoias, which became the first federally protected natural area under orders from President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, are no longer in imminent danger, says Cal Fire, however, as the blaze’s spread has slowed.
A highway leading to Yosemite remained closed Monday. While the Oak fire has remained just outside of the park, Yosemite itself is still recovering from the Washburn fire that broke out earlier this month and was previously the state’s biggest fire of the year. The Washburn fire is nearly extinguished, Chavez said, and is no longer considered a threat.
Jonathan Pierce, another spokesperson for Cal Fire, said Monday the Oak fire had “extreme behavior” in part because a rash of blazes in the region in recent years made the land more vulnerable.
While the Oak fire is devastating, Pierce pointed out that it is not nearly as large as recent wildfires to ravage California. At this time last year, the Dixie fire raged over more than a million acres in total—more than 60 times the area the Oak fire has burned.
The veracity of last year’s flames caused mass resignations in Cal Fire. The agency was still reportedly scrambling to add firefighters ahead of this year’s fire season—which was forecast to be particularly brutal as the state enters its second year of a crippling drought.
Pierce confirmed there have been no reported deaths from the Oak fire. He said firefighters have a long way to go before they can label the flames as contained, however.
“We have thrown a lot more resources at the fire and that’s helped,” Pierce said. “Those crews have done a lot of hard work but still have a lot of work ahead of them.”