Fast-moving California wildfire rages into Yosemite National Park

SAN FRANCISCO Fri Aug 23, 2013 6:35pm EDT

1 of 9. The sun sets on the Rim Fire near Buck Meadows, California, August 22, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Max Whittaker

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A California wildfire swept further into Yosemite National Park on Friday, remaining largely unchecked as it threatened one of the country's major tourist destinations.

The so-called Rim Fire, which started on Saturday in the Stanislaus National Forest, had blackened 11,000 acres at the northeastern corner of Yosemite as of Friday afternoon after exploding in size overnight, park spokeswoman Kari Cobb said.

The blaze burning in the western Sierra Nevada mountains is now the fastest-moving of 50 large wildfires raging across the drought-parched U.S. West that have strained resources and prompted fire managers to open talks with Pentagon commanders and Canadian officials about possible reinforcements.

So far, the flames edging into scenic Yosemite have reached as far as Lake Eleanor, a remote area of the park which is normally accessible for fishing and hiking but was closed earlier this week along with several other areas after the fire broke out.

The park has been posting updates and alerts on its website on areas of access and closures. www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm)

The blaze, which has now charred a total of 165 square miles of forest land, mostly outside of Yosemite, was about 4 miles west of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and some 20 miles from Yosemite Valley, the park's main tourist center, Cobb said.

"We're not anywhere near closing the (entire) park," she said. "We have to wait and see what the fire activity is and what it does, and we're just going to try as hard as we can to help with the suppression of the fire."

The Rim Fire, named for a Stanislaus National Forest lookout point called Rim of the World, has so far destroyed four homes and 12 outbuildings and was only 2 percent contained as of Friday.

"Firefighters are still going to have a stressful situation out there," fire information officer Ashley Taylor said of the fire burning in steep, rugged terrain. "We are just expecting a very active fire."

California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in Tuolumne County. A firefighter suffered heat-related illness while battling the flames on Thursday.

YOSEMITE ENTRANCE CLOSED

Highway 120, one of four access routes to a park known for its waterfalls, giant sequoia groves and other scenic wonders, was temporarily closed. The highway leads to the west side of the 750,000-acre park.

Located 195 miles from San Francisco and 315 miles from Los Angeles, Yosemite attracted nearly 4 million visitors last year.

The park was also threatening 4,500 homes near the burn zone, up from 2,500 on Thursday, and an undisclosed number of homes were ordered evacuated on Friday, adding to earlier evacuations.

In Idaho, meanwhile, crews increasingly had the upper hand over a massive blaze near the ski resort town of Sun Valley, as a storm system predicted to bring lightning and high winds brought rain instead.

The so-called Beaver Creek fire, now 67 percent contained, at its peak forced out occupants of 2,250 houses in upscale neighborhoods outside Sun Valley and destroyed one home and seven other buildings in a resort area in central Idaho where land and properties are valued at up to $8 billion.

The fire, sparked by lightning on August 7, has charred 111,000 acres of sagebrush, grasslands and pine forests in the Sawtooth Mountains at the height of a summer tourist season that draws thousands.

With the bulk of mandatory evacuation orders lifted, residents wearied by weeks of smoke and fire expressed new optimism. Linda and Ray Johnson, who were forced from their home near Ketchum last Friday and evacuated a second time in the pre-dawn hours on Saturday, returned to a home untouched by flames.

"I think the man upstairs was pulling a lot of strings," Linda Johnson said. "We're all just surviving with as much grace as we can and being as grateful as we can."

The 2013 fire season has already drained U.S. Forest Service fire suppression and emergency funds, causing the agency to redirect $600 million meant for other projects like campground and trail maintenance and thinning of trees to reduce wildfire risks, said agency spokesman Mike Ferris.

The service has spent some $967 million to protect lives and properties amid a season that has seen fires in Idaho, Utah, Colorado and California threaten homes and communities that border forest and wild lands where fire is more dangerous and costly to fight, Ferris said.

With hotshots and other elite fire crews stretched thin, U.S. fire managers will decide in coming days whether to seek U.S. military or international aid to check the roughly 50 large fires burning in the West.

(Additional reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Cynthia Johnston and Dan Whitcomb; editing by Matthew Lewis, Bernard Orr)

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