Campsites and lodges emptied out after disappointed tourists were ordered to leave the heart of Yosemite National Park by noon Wednesday, as firefighters battled to contain a huge wildfire just to the west that has threatened the park’s forest and sent up smoke that obscured grand vistas of waterfalls and sheer granite faces.
Yosemite Valley will be closed until at least Sunday, along with a winding, mountainous, 20-mile (32-kilometer) stretch of California’s State Route 41 that leads in, park spokesman Scott Gediman said.
At least a thousand campground and hotel bookings will be canceled — to say nothing of the impact on day visitors, park workers and small businesses along the highway, Gediman said. Rangers went to campsites one at a time to inform visitors of the closures. Hotels guests got phone calls and notes on their doors.
“This is the prime visitor season, so this wasn’t an easy decision to make,” Gediman said. “This was purely for safety’s sake.”
Officials were quick to point out that Yosemite wasn’t under imminent danger from the Ferguson Fire. Authorities decided on the closure to allow crews to perform protective measures such as burning away brush along roadways without having to deal with traffic in the park that welcomes 4 million visitors annually.
The last time the 7.5-mile-long (12-kilometer-long) valley was closed because of fire was 1990, he said.
Yosemite Valley is the centerpiece of the visitor experience, offering views of landmarks such as Half Dome, Sentinel Dome, Bridal Veil Fall, El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. The glacial valley has been enveloped by a choking haze of smoke from the Ferguson Fire.
Visitors are advised to “limit activity during the periods of poor air quality,” the park said in a statement. “Some facilities and services are closed or diminished.”
Over nearly two weeks, flames have churned through more than 57 square miles (148 square kilometers) of timber in steep terrain of the Sierra Nevada just west of the park. The fire was just 25 percent contained Tuesday.
Mandatory evacuations are in place in several communities while others have been told to get ready to leave if necessary.
More than 3,300 firefighters are working the fire, aided by 16 helicopters. One firefighter was killed July 14, and six others have been injured.
Rhonda Salisbury, CEO of Visit Yosemite/Madera County, said the regional visitors bureau has been relocating tourists statewide following the closure.
“People are heartbroken,” she said. “Some want to ride it out for a few days and see if they can get back in the park.” Others want help finding places to stay away from Yosemite.
Gediman suggested valley visitors divert to Tuolumne Meadows, on Yosemite’s northern edge, or to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks to the south.
“There are wonderful places to visit in the region, so we’re asking people to consider alternative plans,” he said.
In the state’s far north, a nearly 4-square-mile (10-square-kilometer) wildfire has forced the evacuation of French Gulch, a small Shasta County community that dates to the Gold Rush.