Carstens Fire threat thwarted
Firefighters have gotten the upper hand on the Carstens Fire--a blaze that could have been potentially devastating. Anyone watching the flames dart across ridges west of Jerseydale Road on Sunday afternoon or light up the sky Sunday night would have thought the county was in for a large-scale disaster .
A multi-agency force of more than 2,200 firefighters stood against the Carstens Fire as it bore down on the Triangle- Lushmeadows area on Tuesday.
By Tuesday night, crews had turned the tide against the aggressive blaze—allowing close to 700 residents to return home.
By that time, the outlook had improved enough to cut the number of firefighters almost in half.
At press time on Wednesday, the fire was 40 percent contained—a number that was expected to grow during the day, Wuchner said.
The total acreage burned was a little over 1,600 acres. The number had been revised down from an earlier estimate when crews used computerized GPS equipment to recalculate the total.
Crews overcame erratic winds, low humidity and severe terrain as they fought to contain the blaze—sparked by an unattended campfire on Sunday afternoon.
"It's very steep and deep," Wuchner said of the terrain. "We have lots of hazards, including snags, old mining pits, holes—and it's rattlesnake country."
At Monday evening’s briefing at the Mariposa Fairgrounds, fire officials were cautiously optimistic. Dave Cooper of the U.S. Forest Service said “Our biggest concern is Triangle Road.” The area remained under evacuation order on Wednesday morning.
Madera-Mariposa-Merced CAL FIRE Chief Nancy Koeperich said the blaze had been tough to fight on Sunday night. “We had really extreme fire behavior,” she said--noting the 100-foot flames that scorched the area. Koeperich said crews were expecting the same thing on Monday night, but crews were able to hold the line.
One firefighter had received minor injuries as of Tuesday afternoon.
On Wednesday morning, the fire’s most active sector was on the west flank of Buckingham Mountain. At the fire’s south end, the blaze nudged to within a mile to Triangle Road. Dozer lines had stabilized the front there, Wuchner said.
Incident commanders planned their stand knowing that dire consequences awaited a blaze that jumped fire lines.
A bigger fire would have severely impacted many more residents than the 1,000 or so evacuated from Lushmeadows, Jerseydale and adjacent areas.
“We have an economy we don’t want to interrupt,” fire spokesman Wuchner said. “Businesses, shops, hotels and peoples’ jobs would all be affected by having to close the road into Yosemite.”
The most threatening portion of the blaze was in steep terrain west of Triangle and Darrah roads. Water-bearing engines were sent to protect structures along the front.
Close to 800 homes were threatened on Tuesday. At least 1,000 residents were under an evacuation order.
The fire's north perimeter ran from Jerseydale to a point west and south of Sweetwater Point. The fire started on a spur road off U.S. Forest Service Road 5S24 at 2:10 p.m. on Sunday, an official fire map showed.
A press release said the fire was caused by an unknown person or persons at the bottom of Plumbar Creek.
“An unattended campfire was not fully extinguished,” the press release said.
Fire-weather specialists were astounded at low fuel humidity readings in the burn zone this week, Wuchner said.
"It's a fuels-driven fire," said Wuchner, who works for the National Park Service in Yosemite. "This is fire weather that we usually see in August. We are seeing fuel moistures that are some of the lowest our experts have seen in years."
California wildfires usually slow at night as wind drops and humidity rises. Early this week, that wasn’t happening. The twin punch of wind and low humidity made the fire unique—and makes fire-prevention critical for the rest of the fire season, several experts said.
“One less spark may be one less wildfire for us,” fire spokesperson Karen Guillemin said. “Please be careful.”
As of Wednesday morning, the cost of fighting the fire stood at $1.7 million—an estimate that was expected to grow.
Law enforcement is looking for information about who may have started this fire. Anyone with information regarding the unattended campfire that is possibly related to the start of the Carstens Fire can phone the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office anonymous tip line at 966- 3476.