The fuel-eating Ferguson Fire blew up Thursday afternoon and sent a towering column of smoke thousands of feet into the atmosphere, where it was photographed at 2 p.m. by at least one passenger on a jet headed westbound to San Francisco.

Warm afternoon temperatures approaching and exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit helped boost the Ferguson Fire’s appetite and its smoke column, which was also photographed from the ground shortly after 2 p.m. by Jim Allen, retired Mariposa County sheriff-coroner, county administrator and county supervisor.

Earlier Thursday, evacuation advisories and a closure of Highway 120 were issued in Tuolumne County due to an overnight spot fire, which came from the massive Ferguson Fire near Yosemite National Park, and grew to an estimated 40 acres.

The spot fire came off the Ferguson Fire west of the Merced Grove and south of Highway 120, said Michelle Eidam, a spokesperson for the Ferguson Fire and a fire captain from Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.

Highway 120 was closed at 2:47 a.m. Thursday at the Crane Flat junction east of the Merced Grove parking area, said Christine Knadler with Caltrans District 9 in Bishop. By Thursday afternoon, Highway 120 was closed to the public at the Big Oak Flat entrance to the park.

Highway 120 remained open from the eastside to Tioga Pass, through Tuolumne Meadows, past Tenaya Lake and further west to Crane Flat.

The spot fire ignited either because an ember flew off the main fire and ignited it, a smoldering or burning tree fell, or flames crossed a containment line, Eidam said, speaking from the town of Ahwahnee on Highway 49, where incident command for the megablaze is located.

The spot fire was estimated to have consumed 40 acres near Ned’s Gulch, west of Foresta and south of Highway 120, said Sgt. Andrea Benson with the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office.

Evacuation advisories — not to be confused with mandatory evacuation orders — have been issued for Camp Mather at Evergreen Road and Hetch Hetchy Road, Evergreen Lodge on Evergreen Road, Rush Creek Lodge on Highway 120, Spinning Wheel, Yosemite Lake/Thousand Trails Campground, Sawmill Mountain, Camp Tawonga, Peach Growers and the Berkeley Camp.

“This is an advisement only of a potential evacuation order,” Benson said in an announcement Thursday. “An advisory means there is potential for evacuation and residents should be prepared to evacuate if evacuation orders are necessary.”

Containment strategy

Fire officials delegated all resources available and were confident in their strategy to contain the spot fire, Benson said.

Command staff with the Ferguson Fire said in their 7 a.m. update that the spot fire “resulted in the closure of Big Oak Flat Road (Highway 120) because of smoke and congestion from firefighting vehicles and equipment.”

Once firefighters contain the spot fire, Ferguson Fire command staff said, they will begin tactical firing operations off Pilot Ridge along the Mariposa-Tuolumne county line, weather permitting.

“The high pressure system above the fire is weakening throughout the week, resulting in warmer and drier conditions,” command staff said. “This will increase fire behavior. Residents are likely to see more and taller smoke columns during the next few days.”

The voracious Ferguson Fire ignited three weeks ago on July 13 next to Highway 140 in Merced River Canyon and it has continued chewing through dried-out, bug-killed forest fuels, growing to more than 107 square miles as of 7 a.m. Thursday.

Phone calls to Rush Creek Lodge after 11 a.m. Thursday led to voice recordings. A man who answered the phone at Evergreen Lodge referred questions to a spokesperson and said, “I’ve got a line of people in front of me, I’ve got to check people out, OK?”

Teri Marshall with Rush Creek Lodge and Evergreen Lodge said there were more than 200 people each night this week between the two lodges, Evergreen and Rush Creek.

Both lodges are remaining open, Marshall said before noon Thursday, speaking from a home office in the Bay Area.

“When an advisory is issued we let guests know,” she said. “It’s not the same thing as a mandatory evacuation order. It’s just a precaution that they have to follow.”

More than 200 people are working at the two lodges combined this week, Marshall said.

Marshall said before she took on her duties with Rush Creek Lodge and Evergreen Lodge, she used to be marketing director for the former Yosemite concessioner Delaware North Corporation, so she knows the lay of the land in and near Yosemite. She said she has told Yosemite National Park staff they can send visitors to Rush Creek and Evergreen if they want to wait and see what happens.

“It’s very difficult for rangers at the park entrance to turn people away and they don’t have the updated information yet to give to visitors,” Marshall said. “So we’ve let park rangers know they can send visitors to relax at our lodges’ public spaces and wait for information and for conditions to improve. We will share updates as we get them through our recreation desks.”

Camp evacuated

The Jewish News of Northern California reported that supervisors at Camp Tawonga, between Rainbow Pool and Evergreen Lodge, decided to evacuate year-round staffers from the camp on Thursday, “due to a growing threat from the Ferguson Fire near Yosemite, now burning six miles from Tawonga.”

A total of 340 campers and counselors were evacuated Tuesday this week, “due to potentially harmful smoke from backfires set by firefighters,” the news website reported. Year-round staffers who maintain the camp remained behind until Thursday.

Jamie Simon, Camp Tawonga’s executive director, said Bay Area families volunteered to host 40 evacuated children who are not from the Bay Area, and she said it was an example of how Tawonga has been “inundated with support from the Jewish community.” Simon said she hopes campers can return to Tawonga by next Monday or Tuesday, Aug. 6 or Aug. 7.

Command staff in Ahwahnee said Thursday the Ferguson Fire, and backfiring operations to deny fuel to the main fire, are inside Yosemite National Park on the southeast side of the fire along Highway 41.

Containment

The Ferguson Fire was estimated to be 39 percent contained as of Thursday morning. Containment refers to lines the crews chop, dig and scrape down to dirt around the edge of the fire. Containment estimates can often increase at the same time a fire continues burning more acreage, and homes.

As of Thursday morning, most containment lines on the Ferguson Fire were on the west and east edges. Uncontrolled edges of the fire were burning north into and toward burned fuels and unburned standing dead trees in the 2013 Rim Fire scar, the Tuolumne County line and Highway 120, and they were burning southeast toward the backfired Highway 41 corridor that leads to Yosemite Valley and Wawona.

Command staff now say they hope for full containment of the Ferguson Fire by Aug. 15. So far the fire has contributed to two firefighter deaths, 11 firefighter injuries, and it has destroyed 10 structures. Eidam said two additional firefighter injuries and the increased estimate of the number of structures destroyed did not occur overnight. An estimated 815 structures remained threatened by the Ferguson Fire.

As of Thursday morning, resources assigned to the Ferguson Fire included more than 3,340 personnel, 88 crews, 145 engines, 49 bulldozers, 45 water trucks, and 14 helicopters. Command staff estimated Thursday morning that suppressing the Ferguson Fire has cost $73.5 million, said Natasha Fouts-Noble, a spokesperson for the interagency command in Ahwahnee. Fouts-Noble is also a Cal Fire defensible space coordinator based in Madera County.

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

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