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Tourists, residents flee huge fire near Yosemite

Published: Monday, July 6 2015 8:07 a.m. MDT

Hazy smoke from a wildfire more than 150 miles away near Yosemite National Park descended Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, on Reno and the downtown casino district. Washoe County Health District officials issued an air quality alert because the Air Quality Index worsened to the unhealthy zone for sensitive groups, including the elderly and young children.  (Scott Sonner, Associated Press) Hazy smoke from a wildfire more than 150 miles away near Yosemite National Park descended Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, on Reno and the downtown casino district. Washoe County Health District officials issued an air quality alert because the Air Quality Index worsened to the unhealthy zone for sensitive groups, including the elderly and young children. (Scott Sonner, Associated Press)

FRESNO, Calif. — A California wildfire raging out of control on Friday grew from 99 square miles to more than 165 square miles as it spread inside the border of Yosemite National Park.

The flames have also forced the evacuations of hundreds from homes in communities near the park.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant said Friday the blaze was only 2 percent contained. Berlant said the fire threatens about 4,500 residences.

"Most of the fire activity is pushing to the east right into Yosemite," Berlant said.

While the park remains open, the blaze has caused the closure of a 4-mile stretch of State Route 120, one of three entrances into Yosemite on the west side. Yosemite can still be accessed via state Routes 140 and 41 from the west, as well as State Route 120 from the east side.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., looks at the remains of a Lolo Creek home that was destroyed by the West Fork II fire when it swept down the Lolo Creek canyon, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013 near Lolo, Mont. The fire burned four other homes as well along the U.S. Highway 12 corridor. (AP Photo/Missoulian, Kurt Wilson) (Kurt Wilson, AP) U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., looks at the remains of a Lolo Creek home that was destroyed by the West Fork II fire when it swept down the Lolo Creek canyon, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013 near Lolo, Mont. The fire burned four other homes as well along the U.S. Highway 12 corridor. (AP Photo/Missoulian, Kurt Wilson) (Kurt Wilson, AP)

Within the park, the blaze is burning on about 17 square miles in a remote area around Lake Eleanor, about 4 miles northwest of Hetch Hetchy reservoir, Yosemite spokeswoman Kari Cobb said.

Backcountry permits are required to hike in that area, Cobb said, and the park is no longer issuing those and has contacted every person who had received a permit to go there. Two roads that lead into the area - Hetch Hetchy Road and Eleanor Road - have been closed. Hodgdon Meadow Campground, which is near the park's west entrance via Route 120 has also been closed, its campers relocated to other areas.

"We don't have anybody we know of in that area based on the permits we have out now," she said.

The fire is not threatening Yosemite Valley, she said. It's burning more than 20 miles from the Valley, where skies are "crystal clear" and there's no sign of smoke, Cobb said.

In this Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, a road sign warns of the closure of HWY120 on HWY108 due to the Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest. Calif. The remote blaze in Stanislaus National Forest west of Yosemite grew to more than 25 square miles Wednesday, and was only 5 percent contained, threatening homes, hotels and camp buildings. (Andy Alfaro, Associated Press) In this Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, a road sign warns of the closure of HWY120 on HWY108 due to the Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest. Calif. The remote blaze in Stanislaus National Forest west of Yosemite grew to more than 25 square miles Wednesday, and was only 5 percent contained, threatening homes, hotels and camp buildings. (Andy Alfaro, Associated Press)

"Right now there are no closures and no visitor services are being affected in the park," Cobb said. "We just have to take one day at a time depending on fire activity."

Officials also have advised voluntary evacuations of more than a thousand other homes, several organized camps and at least two campgrounds in the area outside the park's boundary. More homes, businesses and hotels are threatened in nearby Groveland, a community of 600 about 5 miles from the fire and 25 miles from the entrance of Yosemite.

"Usually during summer, it's swamped with tourists, you can't find parking downtown," said Christina Wilkinson, who runs Groveland's social media pages and lives in Pine Mountain Lake. "Now, the streets are empty. All we see is firefighters, emergency personnel and fire trucks."

Though Wilkinson said she and her husband are staying put — for now — many area businesses have closed and people who had vacation rental homes are cancelling plans, local business owners said.

Red Cross volunteers Mike Dabkowski of Sonora middle, Brian Clemetson of Murphys, left, and Koya Andrews of Soulsbyville, right, build sleeping cots at the shelter at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds in Sonora, Calif., with the expectation that residents from Pine Mountain Lake will flee the Rim Fire, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013.  (Andy Alfaro, Associated Press) Red Cross volunteers Mike Dabkowski of Sonora middle, Brian Clemetson of Murphys, left, and Koya Andrews of Soulsbyville, right, build sleeping cots at the shelter at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds in Sonora, Calif., with the expectation that residents from Pine Mountain Lake will flee the Rim Fire, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. (Andy Alfaro, Associated Press)

"This fire, it's killing our financial picture," said Corinna Loh, whose family owns the still-open Iron Door Saloon and Grill in Groveland. "This is our high season and it has gone to nothing, we're really hurting."

Loh said most of her employees have left town. And the family's Spinning Wheel Ranch, where they rent cabins to tourists, has also been evacuated because it's directly in the line of fire. Two outbuildings have burned at the ranch, Loh said, and she still has no word whether the house and cabins survived.

"We're all just standing on eggshells, waiting," Loh said.

The governor's emergency declaration finding "conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property" frees up funds and firefighting resources and helps Tuolumne County in seeking federal disaster relief.

The Yosemite County Tourism Bureau based in Mariposa has been helping tourists displaced by the fire to find new accommodations in other park-area towns, said director Terry Selk.

Associated Press writers Jason Dearen, Lisa Leff and Andrew Dalton in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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