Outside Yosemite, mourning for a local hero and watching the fires get closer

Posted at 8:23 PM, Jul 18, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-18 22:23:04-04

On a clear day, a drive through Jerseydale, Calif., offers panoramic views of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. But now the sky is coated a sickly gray, filled with acrid smoke from the 17,000 acre Ferguson fire raging in nearby Yosemite National Park.

All around Nick and Kristina Smith’s home in the small community, the hills are tinder boxes of dead and dying trees.

In towns like Jerseydale and nearby Bootjack and Mariposa, there are vast tree morgues along roads and in clearings, dead pines piled in stacks. Others are dead and still standing, brown cadavers that are dangerous to firefighters.

Mariposa is in mourning after losing one of its own: Cal-Fire heavy equipment operator Braden Varney, a married father of two young children. He was carving out a protective fire break line when his bulldozer rolled over and he plunged to his death.

The firefighter died just about 7 miles from home, Nick Smith estimates. "He was a well-known person — well-known family," he says. "So it’s pretty sad, it’s hitting us hard. And a lot of us are worried about the homes back here and what’s going to happen."

This stretch of the Sierra has been scorched by at least a half dozen large fires since the Rim Fire obliterated 257,000 acres in 2013, said Stanton Florea, an information officer with the U.S. Fire Service. The 13,000-acre Railroad Fire hit last year.

"I feel like we don’t get a break," Kristina Smith says. "Every year we go through these fire seasons, and every year they get closer and closer to people’s homes. It’s very emotional for many of the people in the community."

In and around Jerseydale, Nick Smith makes a part of his living cutting down dead trees with an arsenal of chainsaws.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that since 2010, 129 million trees have died in California, mostly pines in the Sierra Nevada. "They became infested with bark beetles," U.S. Forest Service information officer Jacob Welsh said. "The dying trees are not able to produce the sap, the fluids to fight the beetles and flush them out."

"They readily catch fire," he said. "They can fall over and hit somebody."

The Smiths say it’s unclear to them whether they’re in the voluntary evacuation zone or not. Nick said the property was safe and he would stay with his equipment and trucks. But Kristina politely disagrees.

"Everything is replaceable," she says. "It is sad to see, and it’s hard to go."