(Adds latest acreage figures, number of firefighters, weather
By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO Aug 29 Firefighters determined to
keep a massive blaze from invading the heart of California's
Yosemite National Park took advantage of cooler weather early 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 added to the tally of charred landscape by dawn on
Since erupting on Aug. 17, the so-called Rim Fire has
blackened nearly 193,000 acres (78,104 hectares), or more than
300 square miles of dry scrub and timberlands, mostly in the
Stanislaus National Forest west of the park, fire officials said
on Thursday. Its cause was still being investigated.
The firefighting force has grown to more than 4,800
personnel, consisting mostly of crews wielding hand tools, chain
saws and even special torches to create fire breaks by clearing
the rugged terrain of unburned trees and chaparral ahead of
They are backed by teams of bulldozers, water-dropping
helicopters and airplane tankers carrying payloads of
The battle inside Yosemite 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
said they have already noticed a decline in the crowds of
visitors typically seen in late summer.
BIGGER THAN CHICAGO
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.
As of Wednesday, less than a quarter of the total burned
landscape, about 43,000 acres, lay inside Yosemite, confined to
the northwest corner of the 750,000-acre (300,000-hectare) park.
Earlier this week, flames closed in on the park's Hetch
Hetchy Reservoir, which supplies 85 percent of the water
consumed by San Francisco and several other communities some 200
miles (320 km) to the west.
But utility officials said there was little risk to the
artificial lake because of the rocky terrain and lack of brush
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 have been ordered evacuated or were
under advisories urging residents to leave voluntarily or be
ready to flee at a moment's notice. The fire has already
destroyed dozens of homes and cabins, but no serious injuries
have been reported.
DEFENDING YOSEMITE'S CORE
Matheson said treacherous, hard-to-reach terrain was
hindering efforts to carve additional containment lines around
the blaze, and he estimated it would take another week to fully
"I think it's very safe to say that we're looking at least
at the first week of September," Matheson said.
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. But the rest of the road through Yosemite's only east
entrance remained open, along with two other gates that allow
access from other directions in the southern half of the park.
The expanded closure of Highway 120 - the only east-west
route that completely bisects the park - was imposed to allow
fire crews to establish new containment lines along the road
before the blaze approaches, said Yosemite spokesman Tom Medema.
"That will limit the access for visitors to and from the
east side of the park, quite possibly over Labor Day weekend,
which will have a significant economic impact on the area and
(be)an inconvenience for visitors," he said.
Several campgrounds and trails, along with two landmark
groves of giant sequoia trees, also were closed to the public.
Firefighters on Thursday also continued to burn containment
lines from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir south to Tioga Road in a
bid to keep the fire from creeping further east into the park,
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 Mark Trevelyan)