Fire affects tourism; Yosemite closure prompts campers to evacuate

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MARIPOSA COUNTY, Calif. (KTVU) - Thick smoke from a wildfire near the western edge of Yosemite National Park is prompting park officials to temporarily close Yosemite Valley and Wawona through Sunday due to concerns about public health and safety. A 20-mile stretch of State Route 41 will also be closed.

All hotels, campgrounds and visitor services will be closed, meaning thousands of campers and hotel guests must pack up and leave by noon Wednesday.

The smoke is obscuring views of the famous Yosemite Valley landmarks such as Half Dome, El Capitan, Bridal Veil Falls, and Yosemite Fall. 

"We've had sustained poor air quality for the past 4-5 days and with the weather outlook for the next few days, it looks like the poor air quality will persist so it's been a health and safety issue," said Scott Gediman, a Yosemite park ranger and spokesman. 
The closure comes at the height of summer tourist season. Yosemite Valley typically draws up to 20,000 visitors a day during the summer, according to Gediman. 

The Ferguson Fire has burned about 57 square miles in the Sierra Nevada and is only 26% contained. More than 3,300 firefighters are working on ground to try and stop the spread of flames. 

The fire's impact is being felt all the way to San Francisco.

Patrick Engler is a tour guide with Best Bay Area Tours. He says he was supposed to take tourists to Yosemite all week, but the fire has forced his company to cancel trips.

"We got word last week that we're just not going to do any because there's too much smoke," said Engler.

That's bad for business at the high tourism season when many companies depend on revenue. 

"This is our biggest season, July, we should be running tours every day and we're not," said Engler, "You can't see Half Dome, you can't see El Capitan. The last time I went up there was Tuesday and I just felt bad for everyone that was up there."

Pablo Montiel is a tourist who came from Brazil with his parents. They visited Yosemite two days ago before the closure was announced. Their photos show the smoke and haze that obscured the views they'd traveled thousands of miles to see. 

"You couldn't see anything. The Bridal Veil Falls, it was very obstructed, and the view from El  Capitan," said Montiel. 

"The high country Tuolumne Meadows remains open," said Gediman, "The Hetch Hetchy area remains open." 

Yosemite park rangers say up to 20,000 visitors come to the park on a typical summer day. The closure is a disappointment to those who won't get to use their coveted lodging reservations this week. 

"If someone for example has a campground reservation for Yosemite Valley or a hotel reservation, those reservations will be cancelled and people will be given refunds." 

The park spokesman says the last time Yosemite was closed due to smoke was in 1990 during the Arch Rock fire.