Road to Yosemite Reopens as Fire Crews Gain Ground

By: Garance Burke AP
By: Garance Burke AP

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) - The main western highway into Yosemite National Park reopened Wednesday after firefighters kept flames from leaping across a steep river canyon and drawing perilously close to the park.

Earlier this week, the blaze shut down a 10-mile stretch of Highway 140, where fire raged up tufts of dry grass on the canyon side, spitting out gray smoke that spilled into Yosemite, obscuring its vertical vistas.

The 50-square-mile blaze was 40 percent contained Wednesday.

"The good news is the highway is now open, but we're still suggesting people use other routes if they're going to the park so fire crews have space to work," said David Christy, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "At least the fire's pretty well contained within the existing perimeter now."

Hundreds of evacuees from the towns of Midpines and Coulterville have holed up with friends, relatives and at crowded motels since the fire was sparked Friday by a target shooter. The blaze has destroyed 21 homes.

David Oppenheim, a longtime backcountry guide in Yosemite, has been staying at the Super 8 since he and his wife evacuated their Mariposa home Saturday, taking their two horses, three llamas, five cats and one dog with them.

"I'm just hoping to go back to my life at this point," said a weary Oppenheim. "But when they do let us back in to our house, we're not even sure we'll have water because we're so remote all the wells run on electricity. We have no idea what we'll do with the animals if we don't even have water."

The fire has evacuated dozens of park employees, and has left one of California's most popular destinations shrouded in smoke at the height of Yosemite's busiest season.

Wednesday, police allowed visitors to enter the park along the Merced River canyon passage only if accompanied by an escort.

"The road is open, but the major issue is that the helicopters that are dipping down into the river sucking up water," said California Highway Patrol Sgt. Joseph Adkins. "People stop to take pictures of this, especially foreign tourists, because it's exciting and fascinating but we need to keep those people going."

The western gate and all other entrances to Yosemite remained open, and most travelers appeared unfazed by the ashy haze.

Officials with DNC Parks and Resorts at Yosemite, which manages restaurants and lodging in the park, said only about 4 percent of all overnight guests have asked for refunds since Saturday, when the transmission line that fed power to Yosemite was destroyed in the fire.

Since then, most hotels, stores and restaurants in the park have been operating on generators.

"We're not waiting for power to be restored, we're doing everything in our power to get our guest services back up to speed," said Kenny Karst, a spokesman for the concessionaire. "We may not have electricity for the lights but now some people can take hot showers."

By Wednesday morning, new generator power restored hot water to
40 guest rooms at the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls and 266 cinderblock and canvas cabins at Housekeeping Camp, along the Merced River's edge. Limited electricity was also restored in the outlying community of El Portal, near the park's western boundary.

In all, more than 2,000 blazes have scorched about 1,700 square miles around California - mostly on national forest land - this year.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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