Visitors to Yosemite National Park weighed whether to cut their vacations short as a destructive wildfire raging miles from the famed wilderness threatened thousands of homes and left evacuees stranded.
Authorities said the blaze tearing through a steep, dry river canyon destroyed 25 homes, more than double the number reported earlier in the day. The fire has forced the evacuation of about 300 homes in the nearby towns of Midpines and Coulterville and is endangering as many as 4,000 others.
More than 46 square miles of mostly wilderness terrain have burned since a target shooter sparked the wildfire on Friday. The fire was 10 percent contained Monday night as it burned about 12 miles from Yosemite National Park, which remained open.
Still, some visitors packed their bags and left campgrounds and other areas near the park because of the fire and the smoky haze that accompanied it.
“You would like to be relaxed on your holiday,” said Trees Duipmans, visiting from Holland with her three teenage children. “If you’re looking for tension you visit New York City. This here is a whole other kind of tension.”
Duipmans and her three children, ages 14 to 18, arrived at a campground outside Yosemite on Sunday afternoon, when smoke had already turned the sun a deep glowing red. They camped overnight but decided to leave Monday.
“There was ash falling on our tent. We think we will go to the beach,” she said.
Highway 140, which leads to one entrance of the park, remained closed Monday evening, according to the California Department of Transportation. Other entrances to the park were still open along Highway 120 at Big Oak Flat, Highway 123 over Tioga Pass and Highway 41 through Oakhurst.
Earlier in the day, Yosemite’s chief ranger Steve Shackelton stood along Hwy. 140 watching flames lick down the side of the river canyon.
“See that,” he said, pointing at a flaming pine cone tumbling down the hillside. “If wind comes from the north, the embers from that pine cone could jump right across this canyon.”
As Shackelton spoke, the pine cone left a flaming trail that sent fire raging up the slope of dry grass, sending out a veil of smoke that obscured the view of the blaze.
“This is some of the most difficult territory you can find in California for fighting fires,” said Mikel Martin, chief of the Madera-Mariposa Unit. “That country is so steep you could almost say it’s straight up and straight down.”
At the peak of summer, as many as 4,000 visitors a day stream into the park. Officials didn’t expect the fire would keep many away.
“People are out there hiking, the campgrounds are full, everyone is taking the smoke in stride,” said Scott Gediman, a park ranger.
Power has been out since Saturday in the park and in the outlying community of El Portal on the park’s western boundary. Hotels in the area are open and running on generators.
California has been dogged by wildfire since June, and hot, dry conditions have turned flare-ups into prolonged fire fights. While many earlier blazes were ignited by a massive lightning storm, the fire outside Yosemite was sparked by a target shooter.
High temperatures are expected to remain in the low- to mid-90s, with low humidity and afternoon wind, National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Gudgel said Monday.
Outside the town of Midpines, some residents ignored mandatory evacuation orders, while for others the damage was already done.
“Everyone’s taken it really bad,” Phillip Mitchell said of the loss of his uncle’s double wide mobile home, which family members identified as one of the 12 destroyed in the fire. “I’m grateful though for the lives that have been saved.”
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