Fire destroys 25 homes near Yosemite National Park

MARIPOSA, Calif. " Fire authorities working to contain a wildfire raging outside Yosemite National Park shut a major highway into the wilderness today, keeping travelers far from the park's western gate so crews could battle flames licking close to thousands of homes.

Authorities said today the blaze roaring through a steep, dry river canyon had destroyed 25 homes, and forced the evacuation of 300 others in the Sierra Nevada foothill towns of Midpines and Coulterville.

More than 46 square miles of rugged terrain have burned since a target shooter sparked the wildfire on Friday. The fire was just 10 percent contained Tuesday morning as it burned about 12 miles from Yosemite National Park, which remained open and teeming with visitors.

Still, some tourists packed their bags and left campgrounds and other areas near the park because of the fire and the smoky haze that accompanied it.

"You would like to be relaxed on your holiday," said Trees Duipmans, visiting from Holland with her three teenage children. "If you're looking for tension you visit New York City. This here is a whole other kind of tension."

Duipmans and her three children, ages 14 to 18, arrived at a campground outside Yosemite on Sunday afternoon, when smoke had already turned the sun a deep glowing red. They camped overnight but decided to leave Monday.

"There was ash falling on our tent. We think we will go to the beach," she said.

A 10-mile stretch of Highway 140, which leads to the park's western entrance, would remain closed until about 9 p.m. Tuesday, fire officials said. Other entrances to the park were still open along Highway 120 at Big Oak Flat, Highway 123 over Tioga Pass and Highway 41 through Oakhurst.

Monday evening, Yosemite's chief ranger Steve Shackelton stood along Hwy. 140 watching flames lick down the side of the river canyon.

"See that," he said, pointing at a flaming pine cone tumbling down the hillside. "If wind comes from the north, the embers from that pine cone could jump right across this canyon."

As Shackelton spoke, the pine cone left a flaming trail that sent fire raging up the slope of dry grass, sending out a veil of smoke that obscured the view of the blaze.

"This is some of the most difficult territory you can find in California for fighting fires," said Mikel Martin, chief of the Madera-Mariposa Unit. "That country is so steep you could almost say it's straight up and straight down."

At the peak of summer, as many as 4,000 visitors a day stream into the park. Officials didn't expect the fire would keep many away.

"People are out there hiking, the campgrounds are full, everyone is taking the smoke in stride," said Scott Gediman, a park ranger.

Power has been out since Saturday in the park and in the outlying community of El Portal on the park's western boundary. Hotels in the area are open and running on generators.

California has been dogged by wildfire since June, and hot, dry conditions have turned flare-ups into prolonged fire fights. While many earlier blazes were ignited by a massive lightning storm, the fire outside Yosemite was sparked by a target shooter.

Fire crews may get some help from a slight drop in temperatures, which are expected to remain in the high 80s Tuesday, accompanied by low humidity and northwesterly afternoon winds, National Weather Service meteorologist Cindy Bean said.

Outside the town of Midpines, some residents ignored mandatory evacuation orders, while for others the damage was already done.

"Everyone's taken it really bad," Phillip Mitchell said of the loss of his uncle's double wide mobile home, which family members identified as one of the homes destroyed in the fire. "I'm grateful though for the lives that have been saved."


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