Yosemite Valley ordered closed because of Ferguson Fire
Posted July 24, 2018 7:24 p.m. EDT
SAN FRANCISCO -- Spectacular Yosemite Valley, where the smoke from a raging wildfire is so thick that the giant granite monoliths are all but invisible, will be evacuated and closed to visitors for several days beginning Wednesday, the National Park Service said.
Hotels, campgrounds and visitor services in the valley and at Wawona at the south end of Yosemite National Park will shut at noon Wednesday and will stay closed ``at least until Sunday,'' park spokesman Scott Gediman said Tuesday.
The closure means that thousands of visitors will be forced to leave the park on the pair of two-lane highways -- routes 120 and 41 -- that remain open. The Ferguson Fire, burning largely unchecked at the park's western boundary, has forced the indefinite shutdown of Highway 140. Glacier Point Road has been closed to allow for creation of a firefighting base camp.
Yosemite Valley, which can be so crowded in the summer as to resemble a small city, has been emptying out on its own as conditions deteriorated.
Thick smoke has largely obliterated visibility in the valley. On Tuesday, a half-dozen live webcams on the Yosemite visitor website were displaying vistas of near-solid gray.
Other parts of Yosemite, including Tuolumne Meadows and high-country areas accessible via Tioga Road (Highway 120), remained open.
A desk clerk at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, formerly called the Ahwahnee, said by phone Tuesday afternoon that guests had already begun to depart. The hotel, usually full during the summer, has been half-empty in recent days as guests canceled reservations because of the fire.
``Our eyes are stinging, our noses hurt and so many employees have left that we're operating with skeleton crews,'' said a store employee at Half Dome Village, formerly known as Camp Curry, who asked to not be identified. ``It's very surreal to look out the window and see no guests, no hordes of hikers, no cars. It's way worse than a smoggy day in Los Angeles.''
The smoke is so thick, the clerk said, that a visitor can stand at the base of El Capitan and look up -- and not see El Capitan.
``That's eerie,'' he said.
Air quality in Yosemite Valley and in the Hodgdon Meadow area to the west was listed as unhealthy, the U.S. Forest Service said. In Mariposa, southwest of the valley and just outside the park, the air was unhealthy for sensitive individuals.
Camp Mather, the popular San Francisco-owned family camp near the northwestern corner of Yosemite, remained open.
Some campers had reported eye irritation, but there was a ``marked improvement in air quality'' on Tuesday, camp spokeswoman Tamara Barak Aparton said.
Yosemite Valley has been evacuated twice in the past two years -- this past April and in January 2017 -- because of flooding caused by heavy rain. More extensive flooding that destroyed roads and campgrounds occurred in 1997.
The Ferguson Fire began July 13 and has been burning in steep, rough, parched terrain near Yosemite. It has been spreading toward the park, although firefighters are gaining ground.
The wildfire, which has devoured 36,587 acres, is 25 percent contained, fire officials said Tuesday.
``We are slowly making progress,'' said Rich Eagan, a fire spokesman. ``Maybe not as fast as some people would like, but we're working hard and making progress.''
Favorable weather conditions allowed crews to establish more lines around the blaze with the aid of planes and helicopters dropping water and fire retardant.
However, high temperatures expected Wednesday and Thursday -- forecast as high as 103 degrees -- are expected to make firefighting tougher, Eagan said.
The fire started in the Merced River Canyon, west of Yosemite along Highway 140. Flames have reached within about 2 miles of the park and forced the closure of Highway 140 and the Arch Rock entrance. Some employee and visitor housing has been evacuated.
The fire has killed one firefighter and injured six. The cause of the blaze is under investigation.
As of Tuesday morning, 3,311 firefighters were battling the inferno. Included in the fire fight were 194 engines, 45 water tenders, 16 helicopters, 91 hand crews and 52 bulldozers. Firefighters from around the country continue to flow into Mariposa County.