(Recasts with size of fire, latest figures and firefighting
By Jonathan Kaminsky
Sept 1 A large California wildfire that has
blackened a swath of Yosemite National Park backcountry grew to
the fourth largest in modern state history even as fire crews
managed to slow the spread of the flames over the weekend,
officials said on Sunday.
The Rim Fire had charred nearly 223,000 acres (89,000
hectares) by Sunday, mostly in the Stanislaus National Forest
that spreads out from Yosemite's western edge. The blaze has
blackened about 6 percent of Yosemite's wilder backcountry.
It edged past the 1932 Matilija wildfire in Ventura County
to become the fourth-largest California wildfire on record,
according to figures from the California Department of Forestry
and Fire Protection.
Five of the state's seven largest fires in recorded history
have occurred since 2007, according to those figures.
The fire, whose footprint now exceeds the area of Dallas,
sent heavy smoke on Saturday into the Yosemite Valley, an area
famed for towering granite rock formations, waterfalls and pine
forests. It obscured views of popular landmarks on a holiday
weekend at the end of the summer tourist season.
Fire officials said smoky conditions in the park had largely
cleared after a shift in winds on Sunday afternoon. There were
no further road closures within Yosemite and containment lines
held steady at 40 percent.
"We have been able to hold the line. It's just trying to
figure out how to wrap this thing up and put a bow around it,"
said fire incident spokeswoman Leslie Auriemmo, adding there
were no fresh closures in the park.
Although the cause of the fire remains under investigation,
a fire official with knowledge of the containment efforts told a
community meeting in nearby Twain Harte last week that the blaze
may have been started in an illicit marijuana-growing operation.
The Yosemite Valley has been open to visitors since the fire
broke out two weeks ago, but smoke began spreading to the area
on Friday, before the Labor Day holiday weekend that in past
years has seen the park fill with visitors.
Some 4 million people visit Yosemite each year, most going
during the peak months of June through August. Some 620,000
normally visit the park in August alone, but attendance has
dropped due to the fire.
Close to 5,000 people are working to put out the fire,
including firefighters from across California and nearly 700
specially trained California prison inmates.
More than $60 million in federal and state money has been
spent on fighting the blaze, fire officials said on Sunday.
Among the landmarks potentially in the path of the blaze are
two groves of the park's famed sequoia trees.
"We are working very hard to protect that. All the lines are
in place so it doesn't go into those groves," Auriemmo said.
Firefighters have carried out controlled burns around the
groves to clear away debris that could otherwise fuel a fire to
such an intensity that it threatens the trees.
Lower-intensity fires, on the other hand, play a vital role
in the reproductive cycle of the tough-barked sequoia, many of
which bear the scars of past wildfires, by releasing the seeds
from their cones and clearing the soil in which they germinate.
"Ground fire is a good thing, crown fire is a bad thing in
his case," said fire incident spokesman Dennis Godfrey.
(Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Cynthia Johnston and Peter