Anyone who wants to donate to Jessica’s project can call Ron Hamilton at (209) 588-3848.

Jessica Reibin is 10 years old, she lives outside Jamestown, and she has a place in her heart for public safety first responders and military veterans.

Three years ago she made Christmas tree ornaments for Tuolumne County sheriff’s deputies, California Highway Patrol officers and Tuolumne County firefighters. More recently she made thank-you cards for first responders and veterans. Earlier this year, she gave speeches at 4-H events about first responders and veterans.

This past weekend she heard about the death of Braden Varney, a 36-year-old Cal Fire bulldozer operator who died Saturday while fighting the out-of-control Ferguson Fire burning next to Highway 140, west of El Portal in the Merced River Canyon outside Yosemite.

Varney worked for the Cal Fire Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit. He is survived by his wife, Jessica, his 5-year-old daughter, Malhea, and his 3-year-old son, Nolan. Staff with the Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit said he worked 10 years for Cal Fire, and he was a second-generation Cal Fire employee.

When Jessica heard about Varney and his surviving family members, she knew what she should try to do.

A helping hand

She’d recently raised a wether, a castrated male lamb, for the 2018 Mother Lode Fair, where a judge said the lamb wasn’t yet ready for market. Jessica was going to sell the lamb, which she calls Buddy. But when she heard about Varney and Varney’s small children and his wife, she decided she would try to raise enough money to keep feeding the lamb, get the lamb processed at Rawhide Meat, and then donate the lamb’s meat to Varney’s family.

Jessica hasn’t spoken to Varney’s family members yet, but her parents are trying to make contact with Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit people who know them.

“She’s a sweet little girl,” said Ron Hamilton, a resident of Tuolumne, who is trying to raise donations to help feed the lamb before it’s taken to Rawhide Meat for processing. “She works hard in community service. She’s a great kid.”

Hamilton is also principal of Gold Rush Charter School, which is based in East Sonora and serves 500 students in the Sonora-Tuolumne area. He posted photos of Jessica and Buddy online Monday afternoon, along with information about how she is trying to help Varney’s family, and by Tuesday afternoon Jessica’s mom said she had received more than 20 texts, messages and phone calls from people offering to help.

“We weren’t expecting this, so many people’s generosity,” Kati Reibin said. “We’re surprised and thankful to the community. Jessica just wants to help this family.”

‘They help us a lot’

Rawhide Meat has already offered to butcher and process the lamb’s meat for free, as a donation to help Jessica, Kati Reibin said. Donations will help pay to feed Buddy for another month, and anything over and above the costs of getting the lamb ready for market will be rolled over to help pay for ag projects Jessica plans to do for next year’s Mother Lode Fair.

Jessica hopes to be able to present finished, butchered, packaged lamb’s meat to Varney’s family by the end of August, Hamilton said. What struck her the most when she heard about Varney’s death were his two young kids and his wife.

“First responders, they help us a lot,” Jessica said Tuesday. “I figured I’d donate the meat so I could help them.”

Jessica said she was also motivated by a friend who donated a goat to the Mother Lode Fair barbecue earlier this month. At last year’s Mother Lode Fair, she took a breeding ewe to enter in showmanship and breeding classes, and she entered four meat hens and roosters in the market class.

She donated two of the chickens to an auction to benefit the Mother Lode Fair’s Small Livestock Association. And she donated two other chickens to a 4-H friend who had two chickens die before the fair and who otherwise would not have had any birds to enter.

Jessica is a member of the Tuolumne-Pioneers 4-H Club. Asked what she wants to do when she grows up, Jessica said she hopes to keep working in agriculture with animals, and she hopes to help train service dogs for veterans.

A big wildfire

The Ferguson Fire broke out Friday night next to Highway 140 west of Yosemite National Park. It had grown to 12,525 acres by Tuesday morning. It was still burning largely unchecked in the Merced River Canyon, with containment estimated at just 5 percent.

Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service called in more firefighters overnight and moved their base camp from the Mariposa Fairgrounds in Mariposa to Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park. Personnel assigned to the fire grew from just over 330 Monday afternoon to more than 1,480 by Tuesday morning.

More firefighters and more equipment are being requested, Alex Olow, a Forest Service public information officer at the Ahwahnee Hills base camp, said Tuesday.

The Ferguson Fire was first reported at 9:36 p.m. Friday. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, as are the circumstances surrounding the death of Varney.

Varney’s remains were recovered Monday from an accident site in the burn by workers with Cal Fire and California Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 5, and taken to the Stanislaus County Coroner’s Office in Modesto. Olow said Cal Fire is investigating Varney’s death.

On the fire lines

No other firefighter injuries or fatalities have been reported from the Ferguson Fire since Varney’s death Saturday.

On Tuesday fire crews were facing another day of challenging conditions on fire lines in the Ferguson Fire, Olow said. Forecasters said a heat wave for the Central Sierra was bringing daytime highs near the Ferguson Fire burn peaking at 102 to 103 degrees through Friday.

“It’s 102 degrees, and then you’re wearing Nomex pants, thick boots and heavy shirts, a pack weighing roughly 40 pounds, carrying other equipment and a helmet,” Olow said. “They’re expending a lot of energy to cut lines, so it’s pretty hot.”

Firefighters are required to drink a lot of water and eat as much as they can to keep their energy flow going, Olow said. They watch over each other to make sure they’re doing okay.

“They do get work-rest cycles so they can recover,” Olow said. “It’s a tough situation for them out there.”

The fire is about three miles west of El Portal in the Sierra National Forest, and commanders estimate more than 100 structures near the fire are threatened.


Threats to lives and property from the Ferguson Fire have prompted public safety agencies in Mariposa County to call for mandatory evacuations in areas including Incline Road from Clearing House to the last Bureau of Land Management campground, Jerseydale/ Mariposa Pines, Cedar Lodge/Indian Flat Campground, Savage’s Trading Post and Sweetwater Ridge.

There are also evacuation advisories — for potential evacuation orders if conditions worsen — in areas including Yosemite West, the Lushmeadows community, the Ponderosa Basin community, and Triangle Road from Jerseydale Road to Highway 49 South including all side roads.

Evacuation advisories are also in place for Darrah Road from Triangle to Sherrod Road, the east side of Highway 49 South from Darrah Road to Harris Road, including Boyer Road, the Woodland area, Wass Road and Tip Top Road, the National Park Service El Portal complex, Rancheria Flat government housing, El Portal Trailer Court and Old El Portal.

An evacuation center has been set up at New Life Christian Fellowship, 5089 Cole Road in Mariposa.

Community meetings were planned at 4 p.m. Tuesday at El Portal Community Hall, 5512 Foresta Road in El Portal, and at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Wasuma Elementary School, 43109 Highway 49 in Ahwahnee.

As of Tuesday afternoon Highway 140 was closed from Abbie Road in El Portal to about 14 miles north of Mariposa. Incline Road, River Road from Briceburg to the gate at Railroad Flat, and adjacent campground areas were all closed due to the fire.

Contact Guy McCarthy at or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.