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Yosemite reopens to a surreal scene of smoke, tourists and flames in the distance

Yosemite reopens to a surreal scene of smoke, tourists and flames in the distance
Steve Maddison of Holland photographs El Capitan upon Yosemite National Park's reopening Aug. 14 as firefighters further contained the Ferguson fire. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

As Rob Walker drove into Yosemite, he briefly reconsidered the camping trip he was about to take with a small group of friends and family.

The outing is a tradition. Walker’s family always stays at the North Pines Campground near the Merced River, with Kaleigh Burn and her family.

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But on Tuesday, the group had a moment when, impressed by the power of the Ferguson fire, they were unsure.

“We came through on Highway 140 — active fire is still going on right there,” said Walker, 49, of Mission Viejo. “You see the smoke and flames, and you just want to turn around. But once you get through that area, it’s beautiful — it’s smoky — but you’re still here at Yosemite.”

The valley reopened Tuesday after being closed since July 25 due to the deadly fire burning in nearby forestland. It was a surreal scene as thousands of visitors streamed into the nearly empty park, passing by the flames and surveying the iconic vistas shaded by a smoky haze.

Yosemite is one of several spots across California to be altered by a hellish summer of fire and heat that has left 11 people dead and destroyed more than 1,000 homes from Redding to San Diego.

The Ferguson fire has been burning for more than a month, starting July 13 from still undetermined reasons, and has scorched 96,606 acres throughout the Sierra National Forest and in Yosemite National Park. While the fire never reached the landmarks of Yosemite, the smoke was so intense that the valley had to be closed during the peak of the summer tourist season, not only wrecking travel plans but also starving local businesses.

The blaze, which has claimed the lives of two firefighters, was at 86% containment Tuesday, with the last active spot being a region between Wawona Road and the Merced River — essentially the steep, rocky hillside that visitors see when they enter the park on El Portal Road.

Victoria Matlock, 23, of Orlando, Fla., walks along Upper Yosemite Fall trail as Yosemite Valley reopens in Yosemite, Calif., on Aug. 14, 2018. The Yosemite Valley reopened as firefighters strengthen containment of the Ferguson fire.
Victoria Matlock, 23, of Orlando, Fla., walks along Upper Yosemite Fall trail as Yosemite Valley reopens in Yosemite, Calif., on Aug. 14, 2018. The Yosemite Valley reopened as firefighters strengthen containment of the Ferguson fire. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Active fire starts shortly past the station where visitors pay their fees, and continues for about two miles, burning through thick brush and trees. Boulders and rocks along the river are covered in ash, and on the ridge line, several trees are leafless and burned.

“Driving in from Highway 120, we saw a lot of smoke right at the moment we entered the valley,” said Suyog Tated, who arrived Tuesday with his family from Dallas. “I thought it was clouds, but the moment you open your window, you know it’s not clouds.”

Visitors streaming into the valley Tuesday from Highway 140, which becomes El Portal Road once inside Yosemite, were greeted with a sign warning them they were not allowed to stop for the next seven miles, an effort by park staff to keep people from gawking at the firefighters still at work. A few lookout points nearest to the flames were cordoned off with yellow caution tape and orange cones.

Helicopters with buckets full of water from the Merced River flew over cars entering the park.

Of all the times to come to Yosemite, a trip Tuesday did, at the very least, offer something different.

“National parks are wild by nature, and fire is part of that,” Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said. “And there’s no reason to not come up for it. In fact, I would argue the opposite — that this is a unique opportunity for people to see the park.”

Longtime Oakhurst resident Brenda Negley, 51, has been to Yosemite dozens of times. But this is the first time she has been in the park when there was an active wildfire nearby.

Negley came Tuesday so that her 16-year-old daughter, Brooke, and friend Lucas Lehigh could bring French exchange students Celia Merceer and Kelig Vidal to the park before they leave on Thursday.

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As they drove down El Portal Road, they could easily see the Ferguson fire burning on the hillside.

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

Several visitors were here from Europe, having booked their trips months in advance.

Murdo and Heleen Paterson and their children, 9-year-old twins Maia and Christian, excitedly rolled their luggage into Half Dome Village, hoping that because the valley had just opened, they might spot deer or maybe even a bear.

The family, who traveled from England, had booked just a tent at Half Dome Village a few months ago, but because of cancellations were able to snag a cabin.

The family said they felt safe staying in the park, and thought the smoke might even add a bit of atmosphere.

“It just looks beautiful with a little bit of smoke in the valley, and the sun coming up,” said Heleen Paterson, 43. “It was really mysterious. It looked really good.”

Londoners Rachel Grimshaw, 49, and her husband, David Maclaren, 59 — among the first to enter the park Tuesday — had booked their trip in February.

The couple stood snapping photos at Tunnel View, taking in what’s usually a striking view: Visitors can see granite giants El Capitan and Half Dome, along with Bridalveil Fall. On Tuesday, though, Bridalveil Fall remained hidden behind thick smoke.

Grimshaw and Maclaren had been in California for two weeks, appreciating the scenery as they drove along Pacific Coast Highway.

But Yosemite was a must for their trip, and they were happy the park finally opened.

Friends who have visited the park gave them advice. “They said you’ve got to be here for at least three days; that’s why we booked it. So we’re going to try to pack as much into one day as we can,” Maclaren said.

Without access to the valley, some earlier visitors had chosen to enjoy the parts of Yosemite National Park that remained open.

Megan Lynch, 31, who lives in Arlington, Va., and her parents, Kate and Mike Lynch, both 60, of Buffalo, N.Y., flew into Reno, starting their trip at Lake Tahoe, where several Californians apologized to them for the smoke. But the family remained happy to be on vacation.

A Mule deer in Cook's Meadow as Yosemite Valley reopens in Yosemite, Calif., on Aug. 14, 2018. The Yosemite Valley reopened as firefighters strengthen containment of the Ferguson fire.
A Mule deer in Cook's Meadow as Yosemite Valley reopens in Yosemite, Calif., on Aug. 14, 2018. The Yosemite Valley reopened as firefighters strengthen containment of the Ferguson fire. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Yosemite was planned as their second stop, but with the valley closed, they stayed on the eastern side of the park for two days, hiking on the John Muir Trail and stopping at lookout spots like Olmsted Point.

They weren’t that concerned about the smoldering trees they passed on El Portal Road.

“My basic assumption is it was probably safe on like Saturday, but I’m assuming they gave it a lot of time before they were like, ‘We’re ready to have hordes of people in here,’” Megan Lynch said.

And they had no plans to let the smoke at Yosemite bring them down.

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

Suyog Tated, his wife, Neha, and 4-year-old daughter Aarna had flown from Dallas to Las Vegas, with a road trip planned to San Francisco. Seeing Yosemite was a big part of their plans.

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Tated booked the rooms two months ago and snagged one of the last ones at Big Trees Lodge, formerly the Wawona Hotel.

They had planned to spend more time in Yosemite Valley, but when it was closed, they went to Bishop instead. Although it was a detour, they loved the stargazing and views of the mountains on Tioga Pass.

“You don’t find stars in Dallas,” Suyog Tated said.

He had bought a new lens for his DSLR camera — and was intent on using it for the views Yosemite promises. But upon entering Tuesday, he knew that might be a challenge. The family hoped by late afternoon, the smoke at Tunnel View would clear up and they’d see the panorama they’d imagined.

A few families spent time Tuesday near Swinging Bridge, splashing in the water.

Susan Hill of Minneapolis has been to Yosemite several times, including a mountain-climbing trip when she was four months pregnant.

About two years later her daughter, 16-month-old Hazel, toddled around the river, splashing in the ankle-deep water, one hand holding a mango, the other a carrot stick, clad only in her diaper. Nearby, her sister, 8-year-old Zoe, and Hill’s fiancé, Dean Derhaag, enjoyed the cool river.

Hill had hoped Dean, who hadn’t been to Yosemite before, would be able to see the valley’s beauty a little more clearly. But through the early afternoon, smoke still lingered.

“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.”

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