California wildfire slows as residents try to recover

AP PHOTO This satellite imagery, posted Wednesday, on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website, shows a large plume of smoke spreading hundreds of miles east from the Ditwiler fire, near Yosemite National Park in California's Sierra Nevada.

LOS ANGELES — Steve Valdez was back at work Saturday at a hardware store, days after his home and those of his neighbors were incinerated in a gigantic wildfire that swept through a rural area of California near Yosemite National Park.

“This is a hardware store in a small town. There are people out there who depend upon us to get power, to get water, to get their equipment fixed,” said Valdez, a clerk at Coast Hardware Do It Best in Mariposa. “They’re getting stuff to get by.”

The aggressive wildfire sweeping through the Sierra Nevada foothills covered with dense brush and dead trees has destroyed 60 homes and 64 other buildings. It spared Mariposa, a historic Gold Rush-era town but burned homes nearby.

The blaze that erupted on July 16 scorched nearly 118 square miles (305 sq. kilometers) of trees and grass and continued to threaten about 1,500 homes, but its spread had slowed drastically.

“They are still out in front of an uncontrolled fire but the fire isn’t moving at 30 mph, the fire is crawling along,” fire spokesman Brandon Vaccaro said.

Nearly 4,500 firefighters, air tankers and fleets of helicopters and bulldozers fought the blaze by chopping firebreaks and dumping rivers of water and fire retardant.

The blaze fed on long grass that sprouted from a wet winter along with brush that had been stricken by five years of drought and trees killed off by a beetle infestation.

In some places, the flames were so fierce that “every bit of vegetation is gone and you’re down to the scorched earth,” Vaccaro said.

The fire grew by up to 30,000 acres a day at its peak, but by the weekend the growth rate was down to about 1,000 acres a day despite dry, blistering weather, he said.