Part of Yosemite National Park in California is closing as firefighters battled to contain a huge wildfire just to the west that has threatened the park’s forest and filled it with smoke. Yosemite Valley will be closed until at least Sunday. (July 25)
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — Campsites and lodges at this popular national park will be empty at least until Sunday, at a high point of the tourist season, after park rangers told some 2,000 disappointed campers and vacationers to leave Wednesday because of threats from an approaching wildfire.
While Yosemite, which greets 4 million visitors each year, wasn’t under imminent danger from the Ferguson Fire, authorities decided to shut down the park to allow fire crews to perform protective measures — like burning away brush along roadways — without having to deal with park traffic.
Much of the fire, which has draped the park in heavy smoke, is burning in steep, rugged terrain west of the park with little to no access roads, firefighters said.
More than 3,300 firefighters are battling the wildfire, aided by 16 helicopters. One firefighter was killed July 14, and six others have been injured.
Yosemite Valley, which hasn’t been closed because of fire for almost 30 years, will be shut down until at least Sunday, along with a winding, mountainous, 20-mile stretch of California’s State Route 41, the main artery into the park.
Over nearly two weeks, the blaze has churned through more than 38,000 acres of timber in steep terrain of the Sierra Nevada just west of the park. The fire was only 26 percent contained Wednesday.
At least a thousand campground and hotel bookings were being canceled and day visitors will be kept out until the fire threat subsides, park spokesman Scott Gediman said.
“This is the prime visitor season, so this wasn’t an easy decision to make,” Gediman said. “This was purely for safety’s sake.”
The closure applies to all hotels, campgrounds and visitor services in Yosemite Valley and Wawona. An estimated 2,000 people were inside the park as of Tuesday, officials said.
Rangers went to campsites one at a time to inform visitors of the closures. Hotel guests got phone calls and notes on their doors.
More: Yosemite fire: What we know about the Ferguson Fire near the national park
July is normally the second-busiest month at Yosemite, drawing nearly 600,000 visitors to marvel at its soaring peaks, towering rock walls and wildlife. Only August is busier.
“I’m going to lose $20,000 and that’s money I’ll never see again,” said Ron Skelton, who owns the Yosemite Blue Butterfly Inn just outside the park in the El Portal area. “We’re completely shut down.”
Brad Lyons and Courtney Richard, who had traveled from St. Louis and Tulsa to visit the park for the first time, stopped for photos Tuesday at Tunnel View, a popular lookout spot to marvel at at the 7.5-mile long valley and its famous landmarks, including El Capitan and Half Dome.
From the edge of Tunnel View, they could hardly make out the mountains, which they said resembled ghost ships in the distance.
Their planned three-day visit quickly turned into two as Yosemite Valley filled with smoke and ash.
“When we saw that the visitor’s center was closed, we knew it had to be bad,” Lyons said. “(Park rangers) told us the air quality inside (the center) was just as bad as outside.”
Visitors are advised to “limit activity during the periods of poor air quality,” the park said in a statement. “Some facilities and services are closed or diminished.”
Park workers were offered air purifiers and the government set up “clean rooms” to provide respite to people affected by the smoke.
Cederlof and Romero report for the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta; Stanglin reports from McLean, Va.
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