Public facilities at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks began reopening to visitors Monday, as firefighting crews gained ground on the Rough fire and the threat to Hume Lake eased.
The fire, sparked by lightning July 31, had blackened 51,794 acres as of Monday night. Fire crews have extended containment lines around 17 percent of the blaze, a significant increase from Sunday.
Fire information officer Michael Pruitt said the fire now appears to be moving east. Hume Lake is “growing into a good position,” he said, and no other camps or major establishments are in immediate danger.
At Hume Lake Christian Camps, which has been under fire threat for days, containment lines were holding, but with the fire still burning nearby, it announced it was canceling its Country Fair that had been scheduled for Sept. 5.
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The fair, a camp tradition for nearly 50 years, is the organization’s single-largest fundraiser, earning tens of thousands of dollars and drawing big groups of visitors, most of them from the Valley. Hume Lake executive director Dathan Brown encouraged supporters to make donations through the website, www.humelake.org.
With the fire threat easing, the national parks reopened at noon Monday parts of the Grant Grove section of the forest: the General Grant Tree, Panoramic Point, park trails, John Muir Lodge, Grant Grove cabins, the restaurant, market and gift shop.
On Tuesday morning, the visitors centers at Grant Grove and Kings Canyon will reopen. Azalea campground will open at noon Tuesday. But parks officials cautioned against tent camping. Air quality in Sequoia and Kings Canyon can be unhealthy to hazardous because of smoke from the fire. Air quality in the parks now is worst from midnight to 10 a.m. Park service officials recommend that visitors wishing to camp do so in recreational vehicles.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks employees said some visitors didn’t know there had been a fire danger. Mike Theune, a fire information and education specialist, said reactions varied depending on where the visitors are from. He said Californians and Australians are used to fire evacuations, for example, whereas visitors from Europe are not.
Air quality cleared up significantly in between the morning and early afternoon, Theune said, but at Grant Grove the smell of smoke still was evident and the distant forest hazy. He was stationed outside the Grant Grove visitor center with a big map that illustrated the fire danger. Many people showed interest in the logistics of fire operations.
Theune said he gets asked at least once a day where firefighters sleep. “When we have a fire we’re almost like our own city,” he said.
Theune said he wants people to know there are healthier places to visit, including parts of Sequoia and Yosemite National Park. But those intent on seeing Kings Canyon can enjoy the views at Panoramic Point and the Kings Canyon overlook along Highway 198.
Visitors can go as far as the General Grant Tree turnoff. Highway 198 is the dividing point, Theune said, and generally everything west of the highway in the park is open, while everything east is closed. So visitors can hike in Redwood Canyon but not enter the Jenny Lakes Wilderness.
“For us it’s trying to find out what’s in the visitors’ best interest for safety and for their enjoyment,” he said.
Lynn Simmons, 56, and her friend, Danny Brooks, 54, watched the smoke plumes beyond Hume Lake from Panoramic Point on Monday afternoon. Simmons lives in Dinuba but owns a cabin in Wilsonia.
Simmons said the cabin was built in 1921 and passed down through generations of her late husband’s family. She wants to preserve it for her two sons but worries the fire could spread. The community canceled a concert last weekend because of it.
“This is like our refuge up here,” she said.
Firefighters gave Simmons and other cabin owners notice that they could be evacuated at any time, she said. She took down family photos in preparation, but worries about the handmade furniture.
Simmons has stayed at her cabin three nights since the fire started nearly a month ago. She walks up to Panorama Point to get a sense of how close the fire is getting.
“I’m still worried,” she said. “But as worried as I am about my cabin, I’m more worried about our big trees.”
Over at the General Grant Tree, the Denson family from Alabama said they had no idea about the fire when they drove in past noon. They were on a road trip that started in Denver, and visited Sequoia National Park on Monday before driving to Kings Canyon.
They hadn’t read about the fire but smelled it.
“We first saw it was hazy,” said daughter Emma Denson, 17. “We thought it was fog.”
Mom Anita Denson, 52, said she saw a lot of fire trucks. “I think it’d be scary if you were staying up here,” she said.
Dad Mike Denson, 53, said the family has been very fortunate that everything on their road trip worked out so far. Next up is Yosemite National Park.
“We like to think it was providentially arranged,” he said. “It could have been stormy, rainy, wind, fires – all the things we’ve seen.”
But everything worked out. They even saw a bear.