By Sharon Bernstein
MARIPOSA, Calif. (Reuters) - Wildfire refugee Rod McGuire sat alone at the far end of the evacuation center, trying not to cry.
One of thousands to flee California's Oak Fire near Yosemite National Park, McGuire, a 57-year-old auto mechanic, escaped from the Sierra Nevada foothills with his life but lost his house, consumed by the largest wildfire to burn in the state this year.
"If I had stayed five minutes longer, I would not have made it," said McGuire, who rescued his small black dog, Dobie, but failed to corral his cats, Tigger and Paws.
His story illustrates the human toll that wildfires claim with ever more ferocity each year, fueled by years of on-and-off drought that have sapped the forest and underbrush of humidity, and where summertime temperatures routinely approach 100 Fahrenheit (38 Celsius).
The Oak Fire has consumed at least 18,087 acres (7,320 hectares) since it started on Friday, an area more than half the size of San Francisco. By Tuesday morning, it was 26% contained and had destroyed 25 homes, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
The fire was moving northward into the Sierra National Forest, no longer in the direction of Yosemite, some 10 miles (16 km) to the east. A grove of Yosemite's giant, ancient sequoia trees appeared safe, though it had been threatened by a wildfire weeks ago.
With climate change contributing to the drought and heat, 15 of the 20 most destructive fires in California history have struck since 2015, when measured by deaths and structures burned, according to Cal Fire. More than 6.8 million acres (2.75 million hectares) burned in 2020 and 2021 alone, an area about the size of Haiti.
In Mariposa, population 1,400 about 150 miles (240 km) inland from San Francisco, about 40 of those fleeing the flames have taken refuge in a Red Cross evacuation center at Mariposa Elementary School.
The shelter also feeds about 100 people, said Red Cross spokeswoman Taylor Poisall. A pet shelter on the premises houses about 140 animals.
McGuire said he was at work at a mechanic shop on Friday when he saw flames and a plume of smoke shortly before 4 p.m. that seemed to be coming from his neighborhood.
He dashed home as the flames grew closer.
"Dear God, please don't take my house," he prayed out loud in comments recorded on a video he shot as the flames leaped closer. "Please pray. Please pray. Please pray. All my friends, please pray."
The one-story dream house that he bought 22 years ago had greenhouses out back, and on a clear day the view stretched all the way to Fresno, a city about 50 miles (80 km) to the south. He moved in on April Fool's Day in 2000.
With the fire bearing down, McGuire said he swept up important papers and his grandmother's crocheted image of the Last Supper. On the way down the hill into town, he heard nine explosions, seven small ones and two big ones, which he believes were propane tanks.
At the evacuation site, he set up two tents, one for himself and one for his friend, Gary Anthony, 62, who had been staying in a friend's trailer when the evacuation order came.
Anthony is in a broken black wheelchair and wears bandages from amputations on each leg.
McGuire, a military veteran who worked for years at Yosemite before joining an auto shop in Mariposa, will be reimbursed for the cost of rebuilding his house by his insurance.
But that was little comfort as he recounted the horrifying events, twice succumbing to tears during an interview with Reuters.
He learned that his house burned from a television crew that showed him pictures. Sitting in the ashes was a sign reading "McGuire's House."
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Mariposa, Calif.; Editing by Daniel Trotta)