The heart of Yosemite National Park, where throngs of tourists are awe-struck by cascading waterfalls and towering granite features like El Capitan and Half Dome, will be closed as firefighters try to corral a huge wildfire just to the west that has cast a smoky pall and threatened the park's forest, officials said Tuesday.
Park Superintendent Michael Reynolds told a community meeting that a 20-mile stretch of State Route 41 will close beginning Wednesday at noon. The closure was expected to last through Sunday.
"Get yourself out of here if you can," Reynolds told a crowd of about 60 people at the Yosemite Valley Auditorium, according to the Fresno Bee.
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, park spokesman Scott Gediman said.
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"We're asking people here tonight to leave tomorrow morning," he said. "And anyone that's incoming tomorrow will get an email or phone call stating that their reservation is canceled."
The last time the 7.5-mile-long (12-kilometer-long) valley was closed because of fire was 1990, he said.
Yosemite wasn't under imminent danger from the Ferguson fire, officials were quick to point out. Authorities decided on the closure to allow crews to perform protective measures like burning away brush along roadways without having to deal with traffic in the park that welcomes 4 million visitors annually.
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's grand vista of waterfalls and shear granite faces has been obscured by a choking haze of smoke from a nearby 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 (147.6 square kilometers) of timber in steep terrain of the Sierra Nevada just west of the park. The fire was just 25 percent contained Tuesday morning.
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.
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 (10.3-square-kilometer) wildfire has forced the evacuation of French Gulch, a small Shasta County community that dates to the Gold Rush.
Last year was one of the most deadly and destructive on record in terms of wildfires in California. Forty-six people were killed and more than 11,000 homes were destroyed by wildfires in 2017. More than 9,000 fires burned 1.2 million acres across California.
The significant increase in the numbers and size of fires last year was largely because the state was coming off one of its wettest winters in years in 2016-2017, which left hillsides covered in grass and other vegetation. That grass dried out in summer and turned into tinder, providing fuel for rapidly spreading fires often pushed by strong winds that can carry hot embers for miles and turn small spot fires into infernos.
An increase in the number of dead and dying trees also has exacerbated the wildfire threat, Cal Fire officials said.
Since 1970, California is not only seeing more fires, but larger fires. Seven of the top 10 largest have all occurred since 2000. They are the 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties; The October 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego County; the August 2012 Rush fire in Lassen County; the Rim fire in Tuolumne County in August 2013; the July 2007 Zaca fire in Santa Barbara County; the October 2007 Witch fire in San Diego County; and the Klamath Theater Complex fires that burned in June 2008 in Siskiyou County.