Evacuation order lifted for California Gold Rush-era town

MARIPOSA, Calif. (AP) — An aggressive wildfire sweeping through California foothills covered with dense brush and trees destroyed dozens of homes but spared a historic Gold Rush-era town popular with tourists bound for Yosemite National Park, officials said Friday.

Firefighters lifted an evacuation order for residents of Mariposa and reopened Highway 140 between the town and Yosemite, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Andy Isolano said.

Mariposa escaped damage as 58 homes and 60 other building elsewhere in the area were burned by the wildfire that has scorched 115 square miles (298 square kilometers), threatened at least 1,500 homes and forced almost 5,000 people to evacuate.

Roughly a dozen of the destroyed homes had dotted hills 10 miles west of Maricopa. Residents a few miles to the north also saw damage.

Officials said the fire was 15 percent contained after nearly $11 million was spent to battle the blaze. The cause remained under investigation.

Firefighters were battling 17 blazes across the state.

Officials said a boy who had been smoking marijuana was arrested for investigation of starting a small wildfire Thursday outside Sacramento.

The fire burned 12 acres in the Auburn area. No homes were damaged and no injuries were reported.

In the fire near Mariposa, officials were investigating an injury accident involving a fire engine. No further details were available.

The fire had crept within a half-mile of Mariposa but crews were able to stop it by dropping red fire retardant and using bulldozers and hand crews to build fire brakes, said Cal Fire spokesman 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. The lower temperatures helped crews stop its progress.

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

Retiree Suzie Ummels, 61, who lives in Mariposa, said she learned through a friend that her home was spared. Still, she’s going stir-crazy in an evacuation center as she longs for the comforts of home.

“I don’t know whether I’m blessed or lucky or a combination of both,” she said. “I just want to go home.”

Located about 35 miles southwest of Yosemite National Park, Mariposa features a charming main street with covered sidewalks and historic wood and brick buildings that house antique shops, restaurants, pizza parlors and art galleries.

Carol Dewey, who owns a downtown bed and breakfast, was one of several business owners allowed in Thursday to check on their shops.

“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, the businesses stand empty as firefighters work to keep the flames away from the town with 2,000 residents.

More than 3,800 firefighters were battling the blaze that has forced people from a half-dozen small communities.

The blaze came within 35 miles (56 kilometers) of Yosemite, where campgrounds were open, park spokesman Scott Gediman said.

Rangers warned visitors with respiratory problems to be mindful of the smoky haze over the park’s landmark Half Dome rock face.

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 the dense vegetation that has sprouted from the rains has increased the challenge for fire crews.

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