USA — Hundreds of residents streamed back into their mountain homes Wednesday as firefighters announced they had made critical gains against a wildfire charging across the hillsides outside Yosemite National Park.
An evacuation order remained in effect for about 100 homes near the fire northwest of Midpines, a small town about a dozen miles from the protected wilderness. By Wednesday evening, the 50-square-mile blaze was 40 percent contained.
“A few of the residents have stopped in to talk and they’re thrilled,” said David Christy, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “We all feel good. They wanted to go home, and we all wanted them to go home.”
Hundreds of evacuees from the towns of Midpines and Coulterville have been taking refuge with friends, relatives and at crowded motels since the fire was sparked Friday by a target shooter.
Women inmate firefighters hike to cut fireline on the Telegraph Fire near Yosemite National Park Wednesday, July 30, 2008, near Mariposa, Calif. Firefighters have made progress containing the blaze after cooler weather and light winds in the region. (AP Photo/Ron Lewis)The blaze, which has reduced 21 homes to ash, has also forced dozens of park employees to flee, and left one of California’s most popular destinations shrouded in smoke at the height of Yosemite’s busiest season.
David Oppenheim, a longtime backcountry guide in Yosemite, has been staying at the Super 8 since he and his wife fled their Mariposa home Saturday with their dog, two horses, three llamas and five cats.
“I’m just hoping to go back to my life at this point,” a weary Oppenheim said. “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.”
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.
On 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.”
In all, more than 2,000 blazes have scorched about 1,700 square miles around California mostly on national forest land this year.
In south-central Montana, meanwhile, authorities asked employees of a ski resort to evacuate as a nearly 12-square mile fire approached.
The fast-growing blaze pushed by 30 mph winds skirted a line of flame retardant intended to shield the ski area outside the resort town of Red Lodge. The fire pushed down the canyon to within about a half-mile of the top of the ski hill before a late-day shift in winds spared the resort.
“We’re hoping maybe this was our big scare and now we’ll be able to get a handle on it,” Red Lodge Fire Chief Tom Kuntz said. “The weather is expected to be better the next couple of days.”
Employees of Red Lodge Mountain were told to leave around 4:30 p.m., but artificial snow-making guns continued to operate, wetting down the resort’s lodges and ski lift shacks.
By evening, the winds shifted blowing away from the town and the ski area. Officials warned that the blaze could make another run toward houses at the mouth of the canyon if strong winds returned.
An evacuation order remained in effect for 90 homes, though residents were allowed in temporarily Wednesday morning to check on their homes and retrieve belongings. Residents of an additional 200 homes have been told to be prepared to leave.
The wildfire, which started Saturday, was 5 percent contained Wednesday night. The cause remained under investigation.