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Yosemite Valley reopens as firefighters strengthen containment of Ferguson fire

Yosemite Valley was reopened for the first time in weeks as firefighters strengthen containment of Ferguson fire. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Yosemite Valley was reopened for the first time in weeks on Tuesday morning, but some visitors were surprised to see a burning hillside along El Portal Road, a key entryway into the famed glacial valley.

Officials at Yosemite National Park had listed the official reopening time as 9 a.m., but a steady stream of light traffic began entering the valley hours earlier.

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On Monday evening, helicopter crews worked steadily to stamp out the Ferguson fire as it burned along a hillside near the Merced River. They repeatedly maneuvered their buckets down into the river, avoiding nearby boulders and trees.

Highway 140, which becomes El Portal Road once inside the park, is now the only open route into Yosemite Valley. However, it is also near one of the last challenges that firefighters face in ending the Ferguson fire.

"That's the last active part of the fire for the Ferguson fire,” said Tom Efird, an incident information officer. “It remains within the [containment] lines, so we’re just actively working on mopping it up and making sure it doesn’t spot over the containment lines and create any more problems for us.”

Brenda Negley, a resident of nearby Oakshurst, said she has been to Yosemite dozens of times, but this was the first time she’d visited with a wildfire nearby.

The 51-year-old made the journey Tuesday morning so her daughter, Brooke, and a friend could show two foreign exchange students around before they go back to France.

As they drove down El Portal Road, they saw the fire burning on the hillside.

“That was a surprise, it really was, but they have it under control,” Negley said.

As of Monday evening, the Ferguson fire had grown to 96,607 acres and was at 86% containment, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The fire started July 13 at 9:36 p.m. in the South Fork Merced River drainage in the Sierra National Forest.

Firefighters have been challenged by the region’s steep, rocky terrain and the substantial number of dead trees, killed by drought and a bark beetle infestation. The dead trees quickly fall, placing firefighters near them in significant danger.

Two firefighters have died during the Ferguson fire, including a captain of the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshots who was killed by a falling tree.

On Tuesday, fire officials said the flames are burning downhill below Highway 41, or Wawona Road, and are chewing through grass and felled logs laying between strands of live oak that cover the bottom third of the slope.

The top two-thirds of the canyon leading up to the road are a mix of conifers that could begin to burn when the winds shift in the afternoon, Efird said.

“We’ve got lots of people on the top and plenty of people on the bottom to hold that in check,” he said.

Although the fire appears close to El Portal Road, its heat is traveling up and away from it, Efird added.

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There’s little chance of embers flying across the Merced River and starting a spot fire on the other side where visitors are, but if it does happen, crews are ready, he said.

Some of Tuesday’s visitors traveled from Europe, having booked their trip months in advance.

Rachel Grimshaw and her husband, David Maclaren, among the first visitors to the park, booked their trip from London in February. The pair snapped photos at Tunnel View. Usually, visitors there can view the granite giants El Capitan and Half Dome, as well as Bridalveil Fall. On Tuesday morning however, Bridalveil Fall remained hidden behind thick smoke.

Grimshaw and Maclaren have been in California for two weeks, and Yosemite was a must for their trip, they said. They were couple was happy the park had finally reopened the valley, leaving them with one of the three days they had planned to spend there.

“We’re going to try to pack as much into one day as we can,” Maclaren said.

Yosemite Valley was closed July 25 because of unhealthful levels of smoke and ongoing firefighting near the valley. Wawona Road will remain closed past Tuesday for that reason.

More than 4 million people visited Yosemite last year, and 90% of them go to the valley — home to sweeping views of El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America.

With the valley closed, hundreds of Yosemite Hospitality staffers have been left with little to no work to do. Since Friday, though, many of them have worked busily to prepare restaurants and lodging.

Without access, some visitors chose to enjoy the parts of the park that were still open.

Megan Lynch and her parents stayed on the eastern side of the park for two days -- hiking on the John Muir Trail and stopping at lookout spots such as Olmsted Point — before they ventured into Yosemite Valley on Tuesday.

They said they weren’t too concerned about the singed trees they passed on El Portal Road. The looming smoke didn’t bother them, either.

“We came from the East Coast — we’re just going for it,” Kate Lynch, 60, said.

Other families spent time near Swinging Bridge, where Susan Hill watched as her daughter, 16-month-old Hazel, toddled around the river and splashed in the ankle-deep water.

Nearby, her sister, 8-year-old Zoe, and Hill’s fiancé, Dean Derhaag, enjoyed the cool river. They flew in from Minneapolis and rented a camper van.

Hill said she had hoped Derhaag, who had never been to Yosemite, would be able to see the valley’s beauty a little more clearly.

“I was hoping he’d be able to see really clear views of Half Dome, but it’s just right now a shadow, which is kind of sad. But it is what it is,” Hill said. “You roll with the punches and you hope Mother Nature decides to stop burning eventually.”

It’s rare, if not impossible, to get a hotel room or campsite at Yosemite during the season if a visitor hasn’t planned months in advance. But Yosemite Hospitality estimates that it’s at 60% capacity for its accommodations, which include Housekeeping Camp, Half Dome Village and the Majestic Yosemite Hotel.

“It’s our busiest time of the season. At this point, we receive more than 70% of our guests between late Memorial Day through Labor Day,” said Bob Concienne, vice president of operations for Aramark Leisure’s Yosemite contract.

“We welcome anywhere between 4.5 [million] to 5 million visitors every year. A lion’s share of those folks come in, whether they’re international travelers or folks on vacation, during the summertime.”

12:35 p.m.: This article was updated with more comments from visitors.

11:40 a.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from Efird.

11:35 a.m.: This article was updated with information on the Ferguson fire.

10:40 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from visitors.

8:50 a.m.: This article was updated to reflect the opening of Yosemite Valley.

This article was originally published at 6 a.m.

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