July 30, 2008
Smoky Haze Obscures the Sights of Yosemite
By Garance Burke Associated Press
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. -- Visitors trying to photograph Yosemite National Park's famed peaks on Tuesday instead took shots of flying ash blowing in from an out-of-control wildfire burning just 12 miles outside the park.
The fire -- which has destroyed 25 homes and is only 15 percent contained -- has shrouded one of California's most popular destinations in smoke and risks marring business at the height of Yosemite's busiest season.
"It's the views that are really disappointing," said Karen Brown, a 45-year-old mother of two from Phoenix. "We do two major trips a year and this was one of them. It's not like we can shoot back here in a month."
Brown said her family was packing up a day early to avoid suffering irritated eyes and sore throats. Still, many travelers said they were gladly staying put.
Patricio Aguirre, 48, from the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, smiled as his wife and children marveled, through a white haze, at Half Dome's imposing shoulder.
"It's a great shame because we know what's burning now won't regenerate for many years," Aguirre said, as he climbed into the family's rented minivan. "My children laugh at me, but I tell them they have to see the good in this. It's not every day one can see Yosemite burn."
Authorities said Tuesday the blaze had charred more than 46 square miles of steep, rugged terrain since a target shooter sparked the wildfire Friday.
It has also forced the evacuation of 300 homes in the towns of Midpines and Coulterville, gateway communities whose businesses rely on tourist dollars.
Fire crews are expected to get some help from a slight drop in temperature, which was forecast to remain in the high 80s Tuesday, accompanied by low humidity and afternoon winds, the National Weather Service said.
At summer's peak, as many as 4,000 visitors a day stream into the park, and rangers expect the fire will keep very few people away.
Officials with DNC Parks and Resorts at Yosemite, which manages restaurants and lodging in the park, said only about 2 percent of all overnight guests have asked for refunds since Saturday, when fire destroyed the transmission line that fed power to Yosemite.
Hotels, stores and most restaurants in the park have remained open but have been operating on generators. Tuesday, 245 guest rooms at the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls remained without power, and lodge staff were handing out flashlights and offering free hot showers at nearby Curry Village.
"We're seeing a few people departing maybe because they have health concerns about the air quality, but virtually everyone's staying in the park," said Kenny Karst, a spokesman for the concessionaire. "Our main message is we're open. The stables are open, we've got river rafting, and we're leading all kinds of hikes and trips to the backcountry."
Visitors seeking to enter the park from the west were turned around Tuesday, when authorities temporarily shut down a 10-mile stretch of Highway 140 to keep flames from leaping across the Merced River canyon. Limited electricity was restored Tuesday in the community of El Portal, near the park's western boundary.
The western gate itself remained open for nearby residents and visitors staying near the park entrance. Other entrances to the park were also open.
Elsewhere, fire officials at Red Lodge, Mont., said Tuesday that evacuation of an additional 200 homes west of the ski resort town was likely because strong wind threatened to push a wildfire closer to the area.
"When we come to tell you to leave, you need to leave," Red Lodge Fire Chief Tom Kuntz told the 600 to 700 people who attended a meeting Tuesday morning.
Ninety homes already had been evacuated. Kuntz said officials hoped the nearly 2,500 residents of the town itself would be able to stay in their homes, but he urged them to prepare to leave.
The blaze had covered just over nine square miles in a canyon eight miles west of Red Lodge and two miles west of the Red Lodge Mountain Resort.
Associated Press writer Matthew Brown in Red Lodge, Mont., contributed to this report.
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