UPDATED 11:19 a.m., Sunday, July 15
(AP) — A wildfire that killed a California firefighter grew quickly and forced the closure of a key route into Yosemite National Park as crews contended with sweltering conditions Sunday, authorities said.
The blaze that broke out Friday scorched more than 6 square miles (16 square kilometers) of dry brush along steep, remote hillsides on the park's western edge. It was burning largely out of control, and officials shut off electricity to many areas, including Yosemite Valley, as a safety precaution.
Some evacuations were ordered in rural communities, and people in lodges and motels near the park were told to be ready to leave if flames approach. A stretch of State Route 140 into Yosemite was closed, and motorists were urged to find alternate routes.
Spiking temperatures and inaccessible terrain was making it difficult for crews to slow the flames, U.S. Forest Service fire Capt. Mike Seymour said.
Heavy fire equipment operator Braden Varney, 36, died early Saturday on the fire line, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said. Varney was driving a bulldozer to create a gap in vegetation to keep the flames from extending into a nearby community, according to fire chief Nancy Koerperich.
The wildfire is one of several burning across the state and among 56 large blazes that are active in the U.S., most in the American West, a region that is struggling with drought and heat.
A blaze near the California-Oregon border that killed a 72-year-old resident and injured three firefighters was almost entirely contained after burning more than 60 square miles (155 square kilometers) of dry brush.
Crews got full control over a stubborn fire that scorched 142 square miles (368 square kilometers) of brush and destroyed 20 structures in Yolo and Napa counties. Investigators said an electric livestock fence that was improperly installed sparked the flames.
In the fire near Yosemite, investigators were trying to find out more details about Varney's death Saturday, but they believe he was working his way out of the fire area when he was killed, Koerperich said.
"This certainly is going to be devastating to his family and those of us who call him family here with Cal Fire," she said.
Varney had worked for Cal Fire for 10 years. His father also worked as a Cal Fire heavy equipment operator. He is survived by his wife, Jessica; daughter Malhea, 5; and son Nolan, 3.
Gov. Jerry Brown ordered flags at the California Capitol to be flown at half-staff to honor "a man who dedicated his life to protecting his fellow Californians."
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