YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK (AP) – A blaze burning in foothills west of Yosemite National Park destroyed dozens of structures and forced thousands to flee Gold Rush-era towns but fire crews have been able to stop it from reaching a threatened community in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
The fire on Thursday was threatening about 1,500 homes and other buildings, after already destroying 45 structures. It’s not clear what type of buildings burned.
The flames are near Highway 49, a historical route winding through Sierra Nevada foothills dotted with little towns that drew gold miners to California in the 1800s.
More than 3,000 firefighters are battling the 5-day-old blaze that has scorched 109 square miles (282 square kilometers), the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.
The fire is 10 percent contained.
The Detwiler Fire ravaging Mariposa County has nearly 5,000 evacuees living in fear that their homes will be reduced to ash.
“These winds have changed on and off through the last three days and it’s changed directions on us so many times,” said Coulterville resident Maryanne Huff.
Heavy smoke hung in the air over Mariposa, a town of 2,000 people with century-old wooden buildings, including what’s touted as the oldest active courthouse west of the Rocky Mountains.
The fire got within a half-mile of Mariposa but crews have been able to keep it out of the town, fire spokesman Jason Motta
“Most of the town of Mariposa has not been affected by anything other than the smoke,” Motta said.
At its closest, the blaze was still about 35 miles (56 kilometers) from the boundary of Yosemite, where campgrounds are open, park spokesman Scott Gediman said.
The fire closed one of several roads into the park during its busy summer season, and rangers warned visitors with respiratory problems to be mindful of the smoky haze over the park’s landmark Half Dome rock face, Gediman said.
The Highway 140 entrance to Yosemite National Park should be bumper to bumper in late July.
Thursday with Highway 140 closed, getting into the park from the west gate is tough. Getting out is even tougher.
“We tried to go down 140 and we got stuck trying to get into Mariposa,” said Chris Roberts, who was vacationing from San Diego. “Can’t go that way, so we’re backtracking toward the park and head down 120 to get out of here.”
And inside the park, afternoon winds are shrouding iconic vistas in smoke.
“Not even to the opening to the valley. You couldn’t see Half Dome it was so smoky in there,” said Dina Moeller a tourist visiting from Denmark. “It was all yellow. We came at 5 o’clock and it was a yellow reddish light in the whole valley.”
Inside the unusually quiet park, rangers were warning guests to take it easy.
“If you’re coming up to Yosemite National Park and you happen to suffer from asthma or other breathing concerns, today is not the day to do a really strenuous hike,” said Yosemite Park Ranger Jamie Richards..
Yosemite does not appear at risk from the fire, which was moving south, away from the park, fire spokesman Jordan Motta said.
Tony Munoz, 63, and his wife, Edna Munoz, 59, were ordered out of their home outside Mariposa on Tuesday. They grabbed clothes, medicine and their three dogs and a cat before fleeing.
Driving out on narrow, congested roads, “you couldn’t even see the sun” in the ash-filled sky, said Tony Munoz, a school custodian.
Downtown Mariposa was empty except for firefighters and other emergency workers. Fierce flames were visible on slopes about a mile away.
Record rain and snowfall in the mountains this winter abruptly ended California’s five-year drought. But that has increased the challenge for crews battling flames feeding on dense vegetation.
“There’s ample fuel and steep terrain,” Cal Fire spokeswoman DeeDee Garcia said. “It makes firefighting difficult.”
Statewide, about 6,000 firefighters were battling 17 wildfires, including about 2,200 at the fire near Yosemite.
Gov. Jerry Brown has declared an emergency, bolstering the state’s resources to battle the fire.
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