Yosemite Valley Officially Closed Due to Growing Ferguson Fire

Trent Pederson, Miguel Vega and Yesun Park, residents of Mariposa, took in what they could see at Yosemite's famous Tunnel View viewpoint on Saturday, July 21, prior to the park's shutdown due to the Ferguson Fire.  (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

Update, 5:50 a.m. Friday: The Ferguson Fire burning near Yosemite National Park has now grown to 45,911 acres as of this morning and is 29% contained.

Update, 6:36 a.m. Thursday: Now in its 14th day, the Ferguson Fire grew by 1,723 acres overnight to a total of 43,299 acres and is 27 percent contained, according to a report by Cal Fire released this morning.

Representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire and Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office will present an overview of the current situation at two upcoming community meetings. The first is at the Mariposa Fairgrounds in Mariposa today at 6 p.m. and the second is at the Tenaya Elementary School in Groveland tomorrow at 6 p.m.

Update, 8:05 p.m. Wednesday: A massive wildfire that's forced Yosemite National Park officials to shut down Yosemite Valley grew by more than 3,000 acres on Wednesday.

The Ferguson Fire, burning in the Sierra and Stanislaus national forests, has now scorched 41,576 acres of dry brush and timber along rough terrain, according to Cal Fire. As of Wednesday evening, the blaze is 26 percent contained.

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Fire officials say hot and dry conditions fueled the wildfire during the day, forcing local officials to issue multiple new evacuation orders.

Yosemite officials closed off Yosemite Valley and the Wawona area of the park to all visitors on Wednesday afternoon. Officials say firefighters were able to improve containment lines around the Wawona Campground during the day.

Park Superintendent Michael Reynolds on Wednesday issued fire restrictions until further notice due to high fire danger within the park.

The number of structures threatened by the fire grew by more than 1,700 to 5,236 on Wednesday. Fire officials say the blaze has destroyed one structure that wasn't a home.

More than 3,600 personnel are battling the wildfire with 241 engines, 47 water tenders, 18 helicopters and 63 dozers.

One firefighter has been killed and seven have been injured fighting the blaze. The fallen firefighter — 36-year-old Braden Varney — was killed on July 14 after his bulldozer overturned in a steep ravine.

Difficult conditions are expected to continue for firefighters on Thursday, with temperatures likely reaching into the triple digits again.

Original post, 2:20 p.m. Wednesday: A large portion of Yosemite National Park — including Yosemite Valley — was officially closed to visitors on Wednesday due to the massive Ferguson Fire burning just miles away.

Park spokesman Scott Gediman said Yosemite Valley — by far the most popular area in the park, known for its sweeping views of cascading waterfalls and massive rock formations — was closed mainly because of poor air quality due to smoke from the blaze.

Officials shut down the Wawona area, near the southern end of the park, in order to house firefighting operations.

Fire officials say a significant shift in wind patterns Tuesday night caused an increase in fire activity along the fire's southern end, forcing local authorities to issue multiple new mandatory evacuation orders.

While the vast majority of disappointed visitors have taken the evacuation orders seriously and left the closed portions of the park before noon, Gediman said there's a chance some backcountry campers don't even know that parts of Yosemite are closed.

"We do have folks that are out on the hiking trails," he said. "And there is a possibility that if folks have been out for a week or so, they may not even know what's happening."

Gediman said park officials will not be sending rangers out to look for campers who may not be aware of the evacuations, but they are notifying visitors who haven't yet started their backcountry trips that there are significant closures.

Officials expect the evacuations to have a significant impact on park revenue, with losses from entrance fees, campground reservations and concessions.

"Not only are we a big economic driver here in the park, but a lot of the surround communities rely heavily on park visitation," Gediman said. "We're working closely with the tourism bureaus and chambers of commerce to mitigate it."

Gediman couldn't offer an exact figure for how much money would be lost, but he did say the fact that the evacuations come at the peak of tourist season is significant.

Smoke from the Ferguson Fire hangs over the Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal, Yosemite National Park, on July 21, 2018.
Smoke from the Ferguson Fire hangs over the Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal, Yosemite National Park, on July 21, 2018. (NOAH BERGER/AFP/Getty Images)

"On a typical summer day like today, we'd have over 300 campsites full of campers," he said. "We'd have all the hotels and lodges full, restaurants, tours, ranger walks. So given the fact that none of that's happening is both an economic impact and an impact to the visitors."

The Ferguson Fire, currently burning in the Sierra and Stanislaus national forests, has scorched through 38,522 acres — or just over 60 square miles — of dry brush and timber along steep terrain. As of early Wednesday afternoon, the blaze is 25 percent contained.

According to fire officials, the wildfire is burning 1.5-2 miles from Yosemite's western boundary. Firefighters are doing some controlled burns closer to the park in order to prevent the fire from spreading.

Forest Service spokesman Jim Mackensen said crews plan to begin controlled burning operations within the park boundaries at some point soon. As part of the process, Mackensen said, firefighters are working closely with wildlife experts.

"They're actually out there with our guys," he said. "When we're cutting line with the bulldozers, they're out in front of the bulldozers looking for signs, looking for species, flagging those things. And we adjust our lines in our operations in order to protect those cultural heritages and endangered species and so forth."

Officials expect temperatures to reach into the triple digits Wednesday and Thursday, making conditions extremely difficult for firefighters working on the front line.

"There is potential today, with the weather conditions, for some significant fire spread," Mackensen said.

One firefighter has been killed and seven have been injured fighting the blaze. The fallen firefighter — 36-year-old Braden Varney — was killed on July 14 after his bulldozer overturned in a steep ravine.

The fire has destroyed one structure that wasn't a home. As of Wednesday afternoon, nearly 3,500 structures remain threatened.

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