Wildfire Smoke Continues to Impact Health, Travel in and Around Yosemite

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A view of Half Dome just after noon on Tuesday, July 17, 2018, with haze from the Ferguson Fire burning nearby. (Yosemite Conservancy)

Hot and dry conditions are hindering efforts to slow the growth of a deadly wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park, and some tourists are cutting their trips to the park short as smoke fills the air.

The U.S. Forest Service said Tuesday that the Ferguson Fire — which ignited late Friday evening in the Sierra National Forest — has scorched more than 12,000 acres of dry brush and timber. The fire was just 5 percent contained as of Tuesday afternoon.

The fire killed 36-year-old heavy equipment operator Braden Varney when his bulldozer overturned on Saturday.

Yosemite National Park officials say all trails and campgrounds in the park remain open, but are warning people to take precautions due to poor air quality.

The smoky conditions have much of Yosemite Valley — a popular tourist destination — clouded in haze, and poor views of some of the park's biggest attractions have tourists cutting their trips short or questioning whether they should even make the trip.

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Graduate student Paul Schlesinger said the smoke-filled air forced him and his friends to change their plans to hike up to Glacier Point, which offers sweeping views of Yosemite. Schlesinger said he went on a less strenuous hike instead.

"Wanted to hike near Glacier Point, but smoke was really bad with ashfall. Decided to go to Mariposa Grove instead," he said on Twitter.

The blaze has also forced the closure of a key route into the park at the peak of tourist season. A portion of Highway 140 has been closed since the weekend, and officials are advising all visitors to use alternate routes into the park.

A view of El Capitan just after noon on Tuesday, July 17, 2018, with haze from the Ferguson Fire burning nearby. (Yosemite Conservancy)
A view of Yosemite Falls just after noon on Tuesday, July 17, 2018, with haze from the Ferguson Fire burning nearby. (Yosemite Conservancy)

The poor air quality caused by the blaze prompted air pollution officials in the San Joaquin Valley on Sunday to issue a health caution for Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, Fresno, and Tulare counties that will remain in effect throughout the duration of the fire.

"Residents in those areas really need to use caution and see if they are smelling smoke or seeing it in their immediate vicinity, and be aware of that, so that they might want to stay indoors," said Anthony Presto, a spokesman for the San Joaquin Valley Air Quality Control District said.

Officials expect that air quality could worsen as the wildfire continues to burn.

"We are expecting in the later part of this week that we could get quite a bit of an impact in the counties of Merced, Madera, Fresno and Tulare," Presto said.

A community meeting is planned for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Wasuma Elementary School in Ahwahnee, and another is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Wednesday at the El Portal Community Hall.

KQED's Hope McKenney contributed to this story, which contains reporting from the Associated Press.