Yosemite wildfires grow at alarming rate

9:51 AM, Aug 23, 2013   |    comments
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GROVELAND, Calif. - A wildfire outside Yosemite National Park more than tripled in size Thursday, prompting officers to urge residents of nearly 300 homes in a gated community to begin a non-mandatory evacuation and leading scores of tourists to leave the area during peak season.

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency as the fire grew to 99 square miles and was only 1 percent contained. Two homes and seven outbuildings have been destroyed. The park remains open.

Reporter Nick Janes of CBS Sacramento station KOVR-TV reported from Groveland, just west of Yosemite, on "CBS This Morning" Friday that firefighters worked through the night to battle the so-called "Rim Fire," which has been burning for about a week.

"It's like taking a rock, dropping it in a pond, and you splash, and it goes every which way," said Lee Bentley of the U.S. Forest Service. "That's what this fire is doing."

Smoke not only poured through neighboring towns. Columns reaching 40,000 feet were visible from more than 100 miles away.

Dry brush, oak and pine have fueled the fire as investigators continue to examine how it all began.

Crews aided by the California National Guard worked in the air and on the ground creating fire lines to halt its progress.

"It's a monster," said Bentley. "It's beating us up right at the moment. We're fighting this fire very, very hard."

With lightening in the forecast for Friday, Janes reports, it remains an uphill battle.

The blaze is among 55 large fires burning nationwide.

For rockers Huey Lewis and the News, smoke from the massive Sun Valley, Idaho, wildfire known as "the Beast" had band members who famously worried about the heart of rock and roll worrying about their lungs.

They canceled their show, as did the novelists, poets and journalists who convene in this vacation region each summer for a writer's convention. Meanwhile, squadrons of private aircraft whisked the affluent off to locales with cleaner air.

With its mountain backdrop, Sun Valley is normally a playground for the rich, the famous, for super-fit pursuers of outdoor sports or the Big Wood River's feisty brook trout. To many, it's heaven. But "the Beast" has caused disruptions in the sun-basking, fun-loving lifestyle, and the economy.

"This is the worst I've seen it," said Brad Wood, who helps run a shop that rents bikes at the posh Sun Valley Lodge. Wood said he's sent four employees home until business picks up: On Thursday, only five of the 350 bikes they rent were out.

Meanwhile, five wildfires have burned about 18 square miles of mostly remote areas of Yellowstone National Park on the 25th anniversary of the infamous 1988 fires that burned more than 1,200 square miles inside Yellowstone, or more than a third of the park.

This summer's fires haven't been anywhere near that disruptive. The biggest fire in Yellowstone, one that has burned about 12 square miles in the Hayden Valley area, for a time Tuesday closed the road that follows the Yellowstone River between Fishing Bridge and Canyon Village. By Wednesday, the road had reopened. Later that day, half an inch of rain fell on the fire.

Idaho's Beaver Creek Fire is finally nearing containment, as firefighters take advantage of favorable weather to corral it up against an area burned by another large blaze in 2007. But it will continue to smoke for weeks.

More than just torching sage, high-desert grassland and trees, however, its impact has scorched the local economy.

Todd Van Bramer, who manages fly fishing guides at Silver Creek Outfitters in nearby Ketchum, said he's lost 70 percent of his normal business.

"We have a lot of customers who can go anywhere they want to," he said. "They don't have to come to Idaho if it's burning, they can go to Montana, Colorado or Wyoming at the drop of a hat."

The air is now much less smoky than it was during the height of the fire, but the smoke continues to cast a shadow over the economy.

At the airport in Hailey, just south of here, regional carrier Sky West has been forced to divert many morning flights to Twin Falls, about 100 miles away, because cooler morning temperatures mean smoke often loiters on the valley floor until afternoon breezes push it away.

And those planes are much emptier than an ordinary mid-August, said Rick Baird, manager at Friedman Memorial Airport.

The Sun Valley Lodge, built in 1936 by the Union Pacific Railroad as America's first destination resort, is bearing the brunt of disruption.

A writer's conference that was to have featured speakers including journalist Peter Bergen and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Liaquat Ahamed was canceled, emptying rooms by the dozen. Guests who cancel are getting refunds, said Jack Sibbach, a resort spokesman.

"It's quite an economic hit on us," he said.

Businesses like The Elephant's Perch sports store in Ketchum have had plenty of time to devote to the local firefighters who have ordered heavy new boots. But it's not adding much to the bottom line.

"These guys are getting the boots at our cost," said Sam Elmes, a sales clerk. "They did a great job protecting us."

For the first time in 37 years, a charitable golf tournament started by the late baseball Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew was scratched. There are "hundreds of firefighters risking their lives in the woods. We're not going to be playing golf while they're doing that," said Georgie Fenton, its director.

For some locals, however, ditching events didn't seem an option.

Ketchum resident Spooky Taft had been planning her daughter's wedding for a year; about 220 guests were coming. Many were in the air even as the flames approached town. The string quartet was evacuated. And with embers aloft, Taft decided the horse-drawn carriage was a no-go, too.

But the wedding went forward. "We pulled it off, against all odds," Taft said.

 

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