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Blaze blamed on campfire roars near Yosemite

By Miguel Marquez, Greg Botelho and Ed Payne, CNN
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Wed June 19, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The fire has burned nearly 1,900 acres and is 40% contained
  • More than 2,200 fire personnel are fighting Carstens Fire
  • The blaze is striking in and around Mariposa County near Yosemite National Park
  • The blaze comes weeks before the normal start of wildfire season in California

Mariposa, California (CNN) -- A campfire left untended sparked a blaze near Yosemite National Park that is threatening hundreds of homeowners, but firefighters are starting to get a handle on it.

About 500 homes are under mandatory evacuation orders, including one that belongs to Mariposa County Supervisor Kevin Cann.

"My cats are with some friends and the dogs are with some other friends," Cann told CNN affiliate KGPE.

"When you are evacuated, it makes you think," he said. "I've been in that house 23 years and it makes you think about what's really important; what do you have to take, and, in the end, it's not all that much."

The quickly spreading flames forced many, like Orlando Vigil, to flee in a hurry.

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He made it out safely, but had to drop the animals from his property at the Mariposa County Fairgrounds. They're safe now, but he's not so sure about his home.

"We'll see if there's anything when we get back," Vigil said.

Beating back the fire

More than 2,000 firefighters are battling the blaze in the steep, rugged terrain west of Yosemite.

Summer wildfires are nothing new in California. But this one is happening weeks earlier than normal, and comes as parts of the state experience "exceptional" dryness that could fuel flames.

"We usually see this sort of fire behavior in August. This is June," said Gary Wuchner, fire spokesman for Yosemite National Park. "It's making us nervous."

The Carstens Fire was first spotted Sunday afternoon, after embers from a campfire that hadn't been totally put out spread into the surrounding forest.

By Tuesday night, it had burned nearly 1,900 acres, of which 40% was considered contained, according to CalFire. Some 2,200 fire personnel were working the scene, using 53 engines, 11 water tenders, seven bulldozers and other equipment. Some 800 structures are being threatened.

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Tending to the evacuees

The evacuations forced some residents into the Red Cross shelter at Mariposa Elementary School. Officials are there with food, medical help and other basics.

"We also have a mental health worker to help those that are overstressed emotionally from the ordeal of being uprooted from their home," Cindy Thomas of the Red Cross told KGPE.

Not everyone is heeding the calls to evacuate, however.

Among them is Paul "Bear" Vasquez. More than 37 million people have viewed his YouTube video showing him becoming overjoyed and then breaking down at the site of a vibrant double rainbow over a mountain in 2010.

Today, that mountain is singed by the Carstens Fire. But Vasquez says he's staying on the property he bought in 1998, hacking out of the wilderness a spot for the home where he's raised his children.

"I am the protector of this land," he said. "I am part of this place. It has magical powers, and I can't leave."

CNN's Miguel Marquez reported from Mariposa, California, and Ed Payne and Greg Botelho reported and wrote this story from Atlanta.

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