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A midsummer fire in California expands to nearly 12,000 acres and threatens homes

At this rate, the Oak Fire, 30 miles from Yosemite, could become a megafire with six-figure acreage, a Calfire spokesman says. The biggest factor? Luck.
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California’s Oak Fire, which started Friday as a 60-acre blaze in remote mountains and quickly became a social media shocker, by Saturday night reached nearly 12,000 acres, had destroyed 10 structures, damaged five others, and threatened nearly 2,700 other buildings in the area.

Its spectacular imagery of raging flames and a roiling smoke cloud were a symptom of a wildfire in a growth spurt, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesperson Hector Vasquez.

Late Saturday, the fire was zero percent contained, fire officials reported.

On Friday the fire produced a pyrocumulus column of smoke that could be seen from Reno, Nevada, on the other side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. On Saturday, NASA released satellite footage that shows the blaze's smoke plume could be seen from the International Space Station.

The Twitter account for the county's interactive map, which includes areas covered by evacuation orders, proclaimed, "This went from bad to worse."

The National Interagency Coordination Center for wildfire response on Saturday said the Oak Fire was a product of "extreme fire behavior with running, long range spotting and single tree torching."

Vasquez said the fire's rapid growth shows potential to become one of the state's megafires with six-figure acreage, absent so far this summer despite a third consecutive year of drought, a warmer-than-normal spring, and blazing heat that started before the equinox, the meteorological start of the season.

Firefighters hope for good luck that would nix at least one of the factors feeding the Oak Fire — dry fuel, hot temps, and sufficient winds. So far, conditions are ideal, including brittle dead trees and branches felled by a bark beetle infection and a weather forecast that offers little respite.

"We have the wind, steep terrain, and the dry conditions," Vasquez said.

The National Weather Service forecasts high temperatures in the mid-90s for the next seven days, with low humidity prevailing and calm winds blowing.

One thing firefighters can control is the human response.

Calfire and its federal and local partners have dedicated more than 400 personnel to the Oak Fire. They'll contend with its move north into the Sierra National Forest and its tendency to grow through spot fires thriving on the dry, beetle-damaged fuel.

Yosemite National Forest is only about 30 miles east of the fire's torso. The park already dodged a bullet when the separate Washburn Fire threatened its cherished giant sequoia trees but has been almost wholly contained without taking out one of them. 

The office of Gov. Gavin Newsom on Saturday secured a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant that will shore up firefighting resources by allowing the state to bill the federal government for much of the Oak Fire response.

Newsom on Saturday declared a state of emergency exists in Mariposa County as a result of the Oak Fire. The declaration clears the way for more state resources to fight the fire and for eventual recovery.

Mandatory evacuations apply to multiple neighborhoods in Mariposa County, with several more added to an "advisement" list of communities that should be packed up and ready to run. Newsom's office said more than 3,000 Mariposa County residents were under evacuation orders late Saturday.

The cause of the fire was under investigation.