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Yosemite to reopen amid red-flag warnings and a mounting death toll

SAN FRANCISCO -- A rare piece of good news emerged from California's fire lines Friday when federal officials announced that Yosemite Valley will reopen to the public Tuesday, nearly three weeks after a wildfire forced a shutdown of the popular destination.

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Sarah Ravani
Kurtis Alexander, San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO -- A rare piece of good news emerged from California's fire lines Friday when federal officials announced that Yosemite Valley will reopen to the public Tuesday, nearly three weeks after a wildfire forced a shutdown of the popular destination.

But the battle against the recent spree of deadly wildfires was far from over, with forecasters expecting high temperatures, low humidity and gusty winds this weekend to frustrate the firefight up and down the state.

A red-flag warning for dangerous weather conditions was issued in the area where the Carr Fire is burning near Redding until 11 p.m. Saturday, Cal Fire said. The Shasta County blaze grew to 181,496 acres by Thursday afternoon, and was 51 percent contained, officials said. A third firefighter was killed Thursday, bringing the fire's death toll to eight.

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen toured the areas burned by the Carr Fire on Friday and said the response to fires must change due to the changing climate. She has said in the past she believes the planet is warming, but has questioned the scientific consensus that humans are the cause.

``It shows us that as we continue, the effects of weather, the effects of climate and the environment (mean) we need to continue to prepare for additional hazards,'' Nielsen said at a news conference. ``The scenes are truly heartbreaking. It really looks like a scene out of a devastating adventure movie.''

Outside Yosemite National Park, people were relieved to hear that Yosemite Valley with its famed waterfalls and towering granite domes would reopen after the 95,000-acre Ferguson Fire stripped countless tourists of their vacations and local merchants of their business.

Park officials warned the public, however, that firefighting operations would continue in the area, leading to possible road delays and limited services as well as ongoing smoky air. Parts of the park will remain closed indefinitely, including Highway 41 from Wawona to Yosemite Valley, the Hetch Hetchy area and Glacier Point Road.

``This is good news,'' said Kirstie Dunbar-Kari, owner of Sweetwater Grocery and Deli in the gateway community of Mariposa, where sales have dropped off. ``This is the longest interruption to business and visitation that I've experienced.''

For merchants like Dunbar-Kari, who has been in the area since 1991, this year's closure has represented a second summer of disappointment after last year's Detwiler Fire similarly curbed commerce outside the park. She's decided to put her once busy shop up for sale.

``I'm done,'' she said. ``It's been two bad Julys in a row. I have other reasons (for selling), but it's one of the big factors.''

Yosemite Valley and Highway 41 through the park were shut down July 25 because of a combination of unhealthy air, firefighting traffic and a brief run of the Ferguson Fire toward the valley. The park's entrance on Highway 140, out of Mariposa, was closed July 14, a day after the blaze started in the nearby Sierra National Forest. The cause of the fire, which on Friday was 80 percent contained, remains under investigation.

Starting at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Yosemite Valley will open via Highway 140 or Big Oak Flat Road off Highway 120, park officials said. Although Highway 41 to the valley will remained closed, the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias will be accessible beginning at 9 a.m. Monday.

``This is truly a historic and unprecedented event in park history, and we are thrilled to welcome back visitors to Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove,'' Yosemite Superintendent Michael Reynolds said in a prepared statement.

Fire officials in Shasta County said the perilous conditions still dogging that region were made clear when two smaller wildfires ignited Thursday on the eastern and northern sides of the county. As of Friday morning, the Hat Fire, northeast of Burney, blackened 2,500 acres and was 15 percent contained. The Hirz Fire in Shasta-Trinity National Forest burned 450 acres and was 10 percent contained.

Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott advised nearly 30,000 residents who had originally evacuated due to the Carr Fire and were returning to their homes to stay alert.

``We need everyone in the state to have a heads up on how critical the conditions are,'' Pimlott said.

A total of 1,077 homes, 22 commercial structure buildings and 500 other buildings have been destroyed since the blaze erupted July 23, after a trailer tire blew and sent up sparks.

A procession was held Friday for Andrew Brake, the 40-year-old Cal Fire heavy equipment mechanic from Chico who was killed a day earlier. Brake died in a single-car crash on Highway 99 on his way to the blaze, officials said. Brake was a six-year veteran of Cal Fire working out of the Butte unit in Oroville.

Others who have died in the Carr Fire were a Redding firefighter, a contract bulldozer driver, a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. lineman, a woman and her two great-grandchildren, and a man found in his home. The Ferguson Fire has killed two firefighters.

Also Friday, the Mendocino Complex in Mendocino and Lake counties, considered the largest wildfire in state history, grew by fewer than 3,000 acres overnight to 307,447 acres and was 60 percent contained, officials said.

Two firefighters have been injured battling the blaze. No fatalities have been reported. A total of 119 homes and 110 other buildings have been destroyed, and 9,200 remain threatened.

In Southern California, a wildfire continued to surge after igniting Monday in Cleveland National Forest, causing 20,000 people in Orange and Riverside counties to evacuate. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for the two counties on Thursday night.

As of Friday morning, the inferno had burned 18,137 acres and was 5 percent contained, according to the Cleveland National Forest. Forrest Gordon Clark, 51, was charged with arson and other crimes for allegedly deliberately starting the blaze.

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