The Donnell Fire that’s incinerated 136 structures since it broke out Aug. 1 grew by more than 3,100 acres and had scorched more than 32 square miles in the Middle Fork Stanislaus watershed as of Thursday afternoon.

Increased fire activity was expected Thursday as the inversion layer lifted and stronger southwest winds moved in, according to weather forecasters assigned to the Donnell Fire.

Command staff said the blaze has pushed farther up Arnot Creek and Disaster Creek to the northeast, and it crossed Douglas Creek on the north side of Highway 108. Geographic information system mapping shows the Donnell Fire has continued spotting east toward Kennedy Meadows Road and southeast toward the historic resort and pack station.

Diana Chappell, an off-duty firefighter from Oregon who owns a cabin her grandpa built in the late 1930s in the Dardanelle area, has been at Kennedy Meadows since at least Monday.

“I'm still up here with the owner and staff,” Chappell said in a text message Thursday. “We have Cal Fire here still for structure protection. The expectation is we will see the fire approach sometime in the next couple days. And my cabin miraculously made it at the top of its hill.”

Mules and horses safe

Chappell sent photos that show Cal Fire engines and a command vehicle in front of the lodge at Kennedy Meadows Thursday morning, and Cal Fire crews eating dinner in the lodge dining room earlier this week. Jimbo the cook lives out there and he is still preparing meals for firefighters and resort staff, including wranglers there to watch over more than 170 mules and horses.

“Yes. Stock is all still here and safe,” Chappell texted before noon Thursday. “We have feed for the animals and people to last quite a while longer. There is a plan for moving the stock to higher safety zones if it becomes necessary.”

Joan Carini, a Kennedy Meadows Resort and Pack Station employee who evacuated Sunday, said firefighters worked hard over the past weekend as the Donnell Fire blew up Saturday and Sunday.

“They cut fire lines, made fire breaks, cleared around the cabins and trailers, cut down lower tree limbs and they have water lines hooked up to the river,” Carini said in a phone interview Thursday. “They’re putting up the good fight. They’re doing everything they can do.”

Kennedy Meadows staff posted to social media on Tuesday that Cal Fire and Kennedy Meadows staff have constructed good fire lines and have multiple water sources established.

“We have a evacuation plan in place for the livestock and personnel,” Kennedy Meadows staff said. “We are doing fine, and all the livestock and personnel are safe. Absolutely no livestock or personnel have been injured.”

6 percent contained

Lia Parker, a USFS public information officer for Donnell Fire and a firefighter with the Stanislaus National Forest, said Thursday the 136 structures listed as destroyed in the Donnell Fire include 55 residences, cabins and business buildings, and 81 minor structures. The main building at Dardanelle Resort that dated to the 1920s burned to the ground Sunday.

Command staff for the Donnell Fire estimate the blaze was 6 percent contained as of Thursday morning. There are 220 more structures threatened by the fire. There were 602 firefighters and support personnel assigned to the fire, including seven hand crews. Equipment assigned to the fire includes three helicopters, four bulldozers, five water trucks and 42 engines.

Overnight Wednesday to Thursday, crews worked dozer drivers to chop, dig, scrape and cut hand lines and dozer lines off Eagle Meadow Road, also known as 5N01.

Command staff say structure protection continues to be a priority along Highway 108 and Eagle Meadow Road. Firefighters are also hoping to protect the famous Bennett Juniper, which the Forest Service describes as “the largest Western Juniper currently living.”

The Bennett Juniper is in Sardine Meadow above Haypress Meadow and west of Kennedy Meadows. It’s 86 feet tall, and Tuolumne County historians say the Bennett Juniper is 3,000 to 6,000 years old.

Damage and destruction assessments

By 8:45 p.m. Wednesday, damage and destruction assessments in the the Wagner and Riverside recreation tracts and at Dardanelle Resort were completed, and all permittees had been contacted regarding the condition of their cabins or resort properties.

“Fourteen of 16 cabins in the Wagner Tract as well as the Dardanelle Store were destroyed in the fire,” Donnell Fire command staff said. “None of the cabins within the Riverside Tract were destroyed. The assessment team continues to evaluate structure conditions along Highway 108, and the Forest Service is contacting permittees as soon as information is available.”

Highway 108 remained closed to the public at Eagle Meadow Road from the west and at the top of Sonora Pass on the east side. Alpine County deputies have closed the gate at the junction of Highway 4 and Highlands Lake Road, also known as 8N01. The Pacific Crest Trail remains closed between Highway 108 and Highway 4.

Mandatory evacuations remained in effect along Highway 108 from Eagle Meadow Road to Kennedy Meadows, including all residences and campgrounds, as well as along Eagle Meadow Road and the Clark Fork Road area. An evacuation advisory was put out for the Mill Creek area on Wednesday.

The cause of the Donnell Fire is described by command staff as unknown and under investigation.

Ferguson Fire

Further south in Tuolumne County and Mariposa County, the deadly Ferguson Fire has burned more than 148 square miles since it broke out July 13. There have been two firefighter deaths and 14 firefighter injuries so far on the Ferguson Fire. Ten structures have been destroyed.

Command staff estimate the fire was 79 percent contained as of Thursday morning. There were 1,889 personnel assigned to the fire. The cause of the Ferguson Fire remains under investigation.

Yosemite Valley and Hetch Hetchy remain closed to the public due to the Ferguson Fire. Highway 120 from the Big Oak Flat Entrance to Crane Flat, Olmsted Point, Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Pass remains open.

There’s also a closure order in effect for the Groveland Ranger District in the vicinity of the Ferguson Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest.

Another firefighter fatality

In Northern California, Cal Fire heavy equipment mechanic Andrew Brake was killed Thursday morning in a single vehicle crash in Tehama County on his way to work the Carr Fire.

Brake, 40, was a six-year veteran of Cal Fire. He grew up in Chico and is survived by his parents, Melvin and Teresa, daughters Marissa, 20, and Miranda, 16, and their mother, Liberté, staff for Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement. Brake is also survived by his sister, Lyndsay Barrett, her husband, Bryan, and their children Lily and Jackson.

Brake’s death was the eighth fatality so far in the Carr Fire. Four residents of Redding, one Redding firefighter, a bulldozer operator and a Pacific Gas & Electric utility worker have died in the megablaze, which has burned more than 1,000 homes, 22 commercial structures, 500 outbuildings and more than 275 square miles in Shasta and Trinity counties since it broke out July 23.

With the two firefighter deaths in the Ferguson Fire, at least 10 people have been killed in fires statewide since the Ferguson Fire broke out four weeks ago today on Friday, July 13.

Braden Varney, 36, a Cal Fire heavy equipment operator, was killed July 14 when his bulldozer overturned in a ravine during the Ferguson Fire.

Capt. Brian Hughes, a 33-year-old firefighter with the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshot Crew at Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks, was killed July 29 when he was struck by a falling tree on a Ferguson Fire line close to Yosemite National Park.

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

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