Though firefighting officials said strong progress has been made to control a growing inferno near Wawona in Yosemite National Park, numerous residents and tourists remained worried Tuesday as smoky skies continued to linger overhead.
The South Fork Fire, which began Aug. 13 about a mile east of Wawona, grew to 3,820 acres and was 17% contained Tuesday afternoon, with 765 personnel, including 22 hand crews, seven helicopters, and 20 engines assigned to the incident.
Brendan Halle, information officer with the South Central Sierra Interagency Management Team, said thanks to a successful series of back-burning operations in the last few days, containment efforts were “headed in the right direction” as fire lines have held strong to any approaching flames.
“The fire remains active on the South Fork of the Merced River, as well as directly east of the town of Wawona,” Halle said. “So fire suppression efforts are directly concentrated in those two areas, as they have been the last several days.”
Halle said back-burning efforts would continue along the river, while monitoring fire lines to the east and northern areas of the blaze.
Chilnualna Falls Road and Forest Drive were the sole road closures still in effect Tuesday, with some 200 structures placed under evacuation, Halle said. One of those evacuated buildings was Big Trees Lodge, formerly known as Wawona Hotel. Evacuations were first put in place Saturday afternoon. Big Trees Golf Course was also closed, alongside trails such as Chilnualna Creek Trail, or any off-road trails in the affected area.
But on the positive side, the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office said evacuations would be lifted for residents only at 7 a.m. Wednesday.
Halle added the Wawona area was not under immediate threat, and said Yosemite was still welcoming a high number of visitors despite heavy smoke, particularly in the mornings and evenings.
“Wawona has been socked in, for lack of a better word when it comes to smoke,” Halle said, noting the park can still be entered through all highways, including Highway 41. “Glacier Point is hit or miss, but the Valley itself has been clear for the most part. The park is still open for visitors and tourists, and everyone is still welcome to come enjoy it.”
A series of thunderstorms over previous days helped with firefighting efforts, Halle said, and were expected to continue Tuesday.
Julie Doyle, manager of the American Red Cross’s shelter at Tenaya Lodge, said about 25 evacuees were staying there.
She said compared to last month’s Detwiler Fire in Mariposa County, the South Fork Fire - and the Empire Fire burning further north in Yosemite - were “a cake walk.”
“It’s been really quiet here,” Doyle said. “People have been finding other places to stay, and they filter in and out each day. The Detwiler Fire was a lot worse than this.”
Not everyone shared the same view.
Hanna Anderson, from Corona, said she was frightened one of her family’s regular vacation stops, the nearby Redwoods in Yosemite on Chilnualna Falls Road, would be claimed by the fire.
“We’ve been coming here for so long so the word got around to my family that the place we love, that we made all these memories in, is in trouble,” she said, with her dog in tow. “My dad just passed away a few months ago, and that’s where all our best memories were made. It’s my favorite place in the world. So I’m worried because it’s right in the middle of the fire.”
Manuel Cadavid, a visitor from Barcelona, Spain, said recent experiences with forest fires caused him deep concern about Yosemite. In June, a forest fire forced the evacuation of more than 1,500 people in Spain, and a week before that, a fire in neighboring Portugal killed 64 others, he said.
Smoky conditions can be seen throughout Yosemite National Park, Halle said, depending on the day’s weather patterns. On Tuesday, smoky skies blanketed Oakhurst from the early morning hours into the afternoon. Those sensitive to smoke should consult their physician and remain indoors, close their windows, or leave the area during periods of heavy smoke.
For more information on the South Fork Fire, dial (209) 379-5322, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5502.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
The Empire Fire, started by lightning on July 31, was at 1,750 acres by Tuesday and burning around a mile south of Bridalveil Campground, officials said. Park staff are letting the fire burn naturally in order to create what they called healthier, more diverse ecosystems, and helping reduce the possibility of future wildfires.