UPDATE 2-Yosemite's weather turns to firefighters' advantage
(Updates burned acreage figure for park; details on back-burning operations; impacts on business, tourism)
SAN FRANCISCO Aug 29 (Reuters) - Fire crews battling to keep a massive blaze from invading the heart of California's Yosemite National Park seized on cooler weather and lighter winds on Thursday to slow the spread of flames ahead of a holiday weekend marking the end of the peak summer tourist season.
Progress came after a long stretch of Yosemite's main east-west road was closed on Wednesday through the western half of the park as crews tightened their grip on the blaze, extending containment lines around 30 percent of the fire's perimeter by the end of its 12th day.
Capping a week in which the footprint of the blaze grew by tens of thousands of acres, a cooling trend and rising humidity levels helped curb the fire's growth overnight, with just 270 acres (110 hectares) added to the tally of charred landscape by dawn on Thursday.
Dry, hot conditions returned after daybreak, but relatively calm winds favored efforts to corral the flames and allowed crews to conduct controlled burning to help create fire breaks and steer flames away from threatened or high-fuel areas.
"We're a lot more confident than we were three days ago," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Dick Fleishman said. "It's not a done deal, though. It's going to take a lot of work to finish it up."
Since erupting on Aug. 17, the so-called Rim Fire has blackened nearly 193,000 acres (78,100 ha), or more than 300 square miles of dry scrub and timberlands, mostly in the Stanislaus National Forest west of the park.
With an overall footprint that exceeds the land mass of the city of Chicago, the blaze ranks as the sixth-largest California wildfire on record. Its cause was being investigated.
As of Thursday, less than a quarter of the total burned landscape, about 45,000 acres (18,210 ha), lay inside Yosemite, confined mostly to back country and wilderness areas in the northwest corner of the 750,000-acre (303,500-ha) park.
Still, the blaze has put a severe crimp in Yosemite-area businesses whose proprietors were counting on a healthy summer season after last year's hantavirus outbreak frightened away many tourists.
"We're laying off just about everybody, something like 45 employees," said Chris Loh, 38, who owns the Iron Door Saloon in Groveland, a gateway town 20 miles (32 km) west of Yosemite.
"This is devastating for not just the businesses but the employees and the community," he told Reuters.
One casualty was the Strawberry Music Festival, an annual bluegrass jamboree that typically draws some 5,000 weekend guests to the area but was canceled when the site of the event, Camp Mather just outside the park, was closed, organizers said.
FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE
A firefighting force more than 4,800 strong was fighting the fire, mostly crews wielding hand tools, chain saws and torches to clear the rugged terrain of unburned trees and chaparral ahead of advancing flames.
Much of the work was devoted to preparing key roadside areas in the park and adjacent forest for controlled burning by hacking away excess vegetation before starting the risky, painstaking process of fighting fire with fire, Fleishman said.
Inside Yosemite, the battle was focused largely on preventing flames from penetrating any farther toward the core of the park, including the Yosemite Valley area famed for its towering rock formations, waterfalls, meadows and pine forests.
Some 4 million people visit Yosemite each year, most of them during the peak months of June through August. Park officials cited a noticeable decline in the crowds typically seen in late summer but said they were unable to quantify the slump.
On the opposite end of the sprawling fire zone west of Yosemite, crews fought to keep flames away from some 4,500 homes in a string of small communities along the fringe of the Stanislaus National Forest, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Dennis Matheson.
Most of those dwellings were ordered evacuated or under advisories urging residents to leave voluntarily or be ready to flee at a moment's notice. But in a promising sign, an evacuation alert for the town of Tuolumne, a community of roughly 1,800 residents, was lifted on Thursday.
The fire has already destroyed dozens of homes and cabins, but no serious injuries have been reported.
While much of Yosemite remained open to the public, travel restrictions in the park were discouraging visitors. The flames last week forced the closure of a stretch of Highway 120 that leads into the west side of the park and serves as the main gateway from the San Francisco Bay area.
On Wednesday, the closure was extended eastward along 120, also called Tioga Road, as far as Yosemite Creek midway through the park to allow fire crews to establish new containment lines along the road before the blaze approaches.
Fleishman said he expected the road closures would remain in effect through the Labor Day weekend. Several campgrounds and trails, along with two landmark groves of giant sequoia trees, were also still closed.
The blaze has been among the fastest-moving of dozens of large wildfires raging across the drought-parched U.S. West in recent weeks, straining national firefighting resources. (Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)
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