Fire's smoke, ash casts shadow over Yosemite visitors

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK -- The summer conditions are balmy, the accommodations lovely as ever. The only thing missing from this wild, idyllic landscape: the views.

Visitors seeking on Tuesday to photograph Yosemite National Park's famed peaks instead took shots of monoliths obscured by flying ash blowing in from Mariposa County's Telegraph fire.

The fire has shrouded one of California's most popular destinations in smoke, and risks marring business at the height of Yosemite's busiest season. The blaze is six miles from Yosemite's western entrance, said park spokeswoman Kari Cobb. It was eight to 10 miles away on Monday, she said.

While Mariposa County residents worried about their homes, some visitors fretted about disrupted vacations.

"It's the views that are really disappointing," said Karen Brown, a 45-year-old mother of two from Phoenix. "We do two major trips a year and this was one of them. It's not like we can shoot back here in a month."

Brown said her family was packing up a day early to avoid suffering from irritated eyes and sore throats. The children had been "using their imaginations to experience Yosemite," she said.

Still, many travelers said they were gladly staying put.

Patricio Aguirre, 48, from the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, smiled as his wife and children marveled, through a white haze, at Half Dome.

"It's a great shame because we know what's burning now won't regenerate for many years," Aguirre said, as he climbed into the family's rented minivan.

At summer's peak, as many as 4,000 visitors a day stream into the park, and rangers don't expect the fire will keep many away.

Officials with DNC Parks and Resorts at Yosemite, which manages restaurants and lodging in the park, said only about 2% of all overnight guests have asked for refunds since Saturday, when the transmission line that fed power to Yosemite was destroyed in the fire.

Hotels, stores and most restaurants in the park have remained open, but have been operating on generators. Tuesday, 245 guest rooms at the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls remained without power, and lodge staff were handing out flashlights and offering free hot showers at nearby Curry Village.

"We're seeing a few people departing maybe because they have health concerns about the air quality, but virtually everyone's staying in the park," said Kenny Karst, a spokesman for the concessionaire. "Our main message is we're open. The stables are open, we've got river rafting and we're leading all kinds of hikes and trips to the backcountry."

Conditions can change hourly, said Yosemite spokeswoman Cobb. While whiffs of smoke mixed with pine-scented air and haze obstructed tree tops on Monday, the smoky smell was gone and tree tops were clearly visible Tuesday, Cobb said in the afternoon.

Some Yosemite visitors traveled thousands of miles to be disappointed.

Marc Allard flew from Paris to see El Capitan, but found the iconic rock formation shrouded by a thick curtain of ashy haze on Monday.

"Everything is like a moonscape. Everything is so gray," he said.

But who knew four months ago, when Allard booked his trip, that there would be a wildfire raging nearby?

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he said, to be in the famed and usually picturesque Yosemite Valley. "We're happy anyway," Allard said, after snapping a few shots of the surrounding landscape.

News of the fire has generated calls from across the globe from tourists trying to decide whether to forgo a trip to Yosemite, one of the national park system's biggest draws. Last year, Yosemite had more than 3.6 million visitors, an increasing number of them foreigners.

Mariska Klooster and Dyon Offerengg from the Netherlands only got as far as Mariposa, about 30 miles west of the park. Their tour was cancelled because the tour operator was forced to evacuate his home, Klooster said.

"We didn't get to see the things we wanted to see, like the Half Dome, El Capitan and the waterfalls," she said. "I guess we'll have to wait, maybe come back in a couple of years."

Not since the 1990's A-Rock fire, which burned 18,000 acres near the park's western entrance and destroyed dozens of homes, has there been such a disruption at the park.

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