A wildfire burning in Yosemite National Park will shut down access to the iconic Half Dome peak through at least Thursday, closing off one of the most coveted and exclusive trails in the park, officials announced.
Access to the 8,800-foot peak will be re-evaluated later in the week as firefighters take advantage of less windy conditions and the park's natural granite barriers.
"If we get no winds, we'll be in good shape," said park spokesman Scott Gediman.
The Meadow fire has burned 4,400 acres and was just 5% contained Tuesday morning, Gediman said. More than 300 firefighters were battling the blaze, which exploded on Sunday amid strong winds, stranding nearly 100 hikers and campers and closing Little Yosemite Valley.
Gediman said officials chose to shut down access to Half Dome as a precautionary measure as the fire crawls toward Tuolumne Meadows.
Thousands annually vie for the 225 day permits and 75 backpacking permits issued to climb Half Dome daily – a trek that includes negotiating steel cables fitted into the dome's vertical granite slabs where wooden slats and the rock provide the only footing. There's also a daily lottery for an extra 50 permits.
Those whose permits are affected by the closure will be issued refunds, officials said.
In addition to trails near Half Dome, those in Little Yosemite Valley, Merced Lake, the Sunrise High Sierra Camps, Clouds Rest and Echo Valley also remained closed.
The fire, believed to have been started by one of hundreds of lightning strikes last month, had been smoldering for 49 days at just under 20 acres. Park officials had been letting it burn to restore the area's natural fire patterns. Given its high elevation (8,000 feet) and slow pace, there was no threat to public safety, officials said.
Rachael Kirk, 26, of Oakland, told Fox News that she and two friends were about 400 feet below the Half Dome summit when the fire started to roar behind them. She said a park employee insisted they climb the board-and-cable stairway up to the summit -- the only place the helicopter could land.
"That was the moment everyone felt scared," she said.
Tim Ludington, a park spokesman, told The Times that the decision to evacuate the hikers by air was the safest option.
"The fire was getting very close to the trail to Half Dome and we didn't want to take the chance on people having to hike through the fire to get back," he said.
A burst of cooler of temperatures and moisture from the remnants of Hurricane Norbert were expected to provide some relief to firefighters as the weather system moved across the state.