The grim return for residents — will homes still be there?

Maybe it was shock, or maybe it was denial, but when Rodney McGuire learned his 22-year-old home had been destroyed in the Oak fire, he kept his composure and wondered what he would do next. Then, without warning, he stepped behind a tree and burst into tears.

“I put my heart and soul into this house,” said the 57-year-old mechanic. “I cried behind a tree for 10 minutes until I could pull myself together.”

On Wednesday, residents of this small community in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada learned if they, too, had lost their homes in an explosive fire that was still burning toward Yosemite National Park and threatened to encroach steep, difficult terrain riddled with fuel.

But even as firefighters battled blazes near the ominously named Devil’s Canyon, authorities began lifting evacuation orders along the blaze’s south and west flanks. For many evacuees, it was the first opportunity to return home since fleeing under a monstrous cloud of fire days earlier.

McGuire still hasn’t had a chance to see what’s left of his home, but video confirmed his was one of 25 homes destroyed in the fire – and one of several homes razed along Triangle Road. When he first spotted smoke from a ridge above his home on Friday, he only had time to grab his dog and important papers. Everything else, he said, is probably gone.

So far, the Oak Fire has scorched 18,715 acres and destroyed more than 74 buildings in five days. However, firefighters have made significant progress, reporting 32% containment as of Wednesday morning. Although the fire’s pace has slowed, it still threatens areas to the north and east, including an area called Mariposa Pines, which is surrounded by fire on three sides.

“The fire wants to move east, northeast into Devil’s Gulch,” a fire official said during a morning briefing. “All attempts at surgery have been very successful, but the fuel in here is continuous despite being in the Ferguson Scar.”

Although the area where the 2018 Ferguson Fire burned has limited bush growth, this is enough to give the fire a path to spread.

“If that happens, we would expect continued growth to Granite Ridge,” the fire official said.

As crews eyed the north and west flanks of the fire, officials reopened Highway 140, which leads into the park and Yosemite Valley, Tuesday night.

Since reopening, Mantreet Kaur has seen the steady trickle of neighbors and regulars driving past their Midpines Store and Gas. Some stop to pick up supplies and offer an update.

Eventually, the neighbors who lost their homes will come back with grim news — moments she said she dreads.

Kaur and her husband stayed behind despite evacuation orders, she said, along with some other residents. The fire was burning less than a mile away, but they decided to take a chance when they saw flames leaping in the opposite direction.

Then the electricity went out.

“It was very scary and tough here,” she said. “But we’re lucky.”

Her house, which sits above the small shop, is still standing, and business will soon pick up again when the residents return.

“But I’m not worried about business right now,” she said.

Meanwhile, firefighters at the southern end worked to knock down hot spots and smoldering areas. The once-quaint two-lane roads flanked by greenery were now covered in white ash and charred trees. Other stretches of road were marked in red – remnants of the firefighters’ air raid.

A house on Triangle Road appeared to have been leveled by the flames, leaving only a brick chimney. At a surviving ranch nearby, chickens roamed their pens awaiting the owner’s return.

At the American Red Cross shelter at Mariposa Elementary School, evacuees shared stories as the summer heat soared into the 1990s.

“The fire came down the hill so quickly,” said Wayne Spencer, a 75-year-old resident whose daughter confirmed the home he lived in on Darrah Road was destroyed.

“There was something to see, wasn’t there?” said another man at the evacuation site.

“I had about five minutes to get out of there,” Spencer replied.

“I had about three,” said the other man.

After moving from the Bay Area nine years ago, Spencer worked as a general contractor, remodeling homes throughout Mariposa County. Along with the two-story house he rented, he lost all of his tools and his prized vinyl collection of 1960s albums.

Spencer had already considered moving to Washington to be closer to his family. After losing his rental home, he believes his move has been expedited.

“I already knew I was going, but that was an incentive,” he said.

However, not everyone is on the same page.

McGuire, who moved to the area from Peoria, Illinois, never thought he would love rural life in Mariposa County as much as he does. Since moving here 22 years ago, he has witnessed several large wildfires, including three this year.

“No place is safe,” he said. “Yosemite is my backyard. This whole town is my family. Why would I want to go anywhere?” The grim return for residents — will homes still be there?

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