MARIPOSA (CBS SF/AP) — A monsoonal weather front bearing down on Central California could stir up erratic, gusty winds in the mountainous terrain where firefighters are battling the deadly Ferguson Fire near Yosemite National Park Wednesday.
Weather forecasters predict that the front will move into the region from Arizona by late afternoon triggering a chance of lightning and thundershowers. The front will also bring with it “gusty, erratic winds, causing hazards to firefighters.”
The blaze has grown to 17,319 acres and is just 5 percent contained. It has also taken a deadly toll on those battling the blaze. One firefighter has been killed and two others have been injured.
On Monday, crews retrieved the body of heavy fire equipment operator Braden Varney, 36, after he died in steep terrain on Saturday. Firefighters took turns keeping vigil near Varney’s body and saluted as it was taken to a coroner’s office.
Currently, 1,850 firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire and fire agency across California attempting to the slow the fire which is in rugged terrain and being fueled by thousands of dead trees that were killed by an epic drought that has gripped California for several years.
The blaze is roaring between the town of Mariposa and Yosemite National Park. While heavy smoke has choked the Yosemite valley, it has not disrupted access to the national park.
The inversion layer of trapped smoke and led to officials issuing a hazardous air alert, saying people with health conditions should stay indoors.
“Use common sense. If it looks smoky outside it’s probably not a good time to go for a run. And it’s probably not a good time for your children to play outdoors,” Mariposa County officials said.
Alyssa Sandoval of Pollock Pines planned to leave the park Tuesday. But she left a day early after spending a couple hours in a smoke-filled valley.
“The smoke was horrible, it was horrible. My mother got sick, my husband’s eyes were stinging, burning,” she said. “I’ve never seen the valley like that. It was smoked out. You didn’t even know you were in Yosemite.”
Park rangers tending the entrances and the visitor center were informing tourists of the poor air quality, park spokesman Scott Gediman said. Information was also posted on the park’s social media accounts.
“Our primary goal is get the information out to them so they can decide how best to go about their visit,” Gediman said.
Air quality monitors showed particulate levels in the park at “very unhealthy” levels, meaning everyone should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion or risk serious health effects such as respiratory problems.
Yet tourists plan their visit to Yosemite months or even years in advance. So far, there have been few cancellations, Gediman said.
Images posted to social media showed billowing smoke completely obscuring Half Dome, an iconic rock formation. Park webcams showed other landmarks, such the El Capitan rock formation, at times concealed by thick plumes of smoke.
Graduate student Paul Schlesinger, 28, said the smoke-choked air and raining ash forced him and a group of friends to change their plans to hike up to Glacier Point, which normally offers sweeping views.
But after driving for 90 minutes from Fresno and waiting in a 5-mile long line of cars to enter the park on Sunday, they decided to instead hike in Mariposa Grove.
“We didn’t think it was worth exposing our lungs to that air when you couldn’t see anything but also wanted to take advantage of our day there,” he said.
A high pressure system was trapping the smoke that is polluting the air, and the same weather phenomenon is expected Wednesday, National Weather Service forecaster Cindy Bean said.
The blaze that started Friday prompted officials over the weekend to order the evacuation of the Yosemite Cedar Lodge, which is outside the park, and of several nearby communities as flames crept up slopes.