WAWONA — Houston resident Charlie Hebert and his family gathered their belongings from their rented Wawona vacation home Wednesday, pondering their next destination.
Hebert said his family only spent two days at Yosemite National Park before hazardous smoke levels forced park officials to close Yosemite Valley. It was his family’s first time there.
“I’m really sad we’re not able to see what we planned to see,” Hebert said. “I feel terrible. I went to bed at 8:30 p.m. last night because I’m really crushed.”
Hebert said the family planned to see the northern parts of Yosemite. He’s glad he at least got see Yosemite Valley, even through the smoke and haze of the wildfire that has now burned 38,522 acres and has inched closer to the park. Hebert’s wife, Lisa, said she noticed her neighbors at vacation homes in Wawona had left early as Tuesday night.
Hebert, 57, said his family was now making plans to visit Universal Studios in Southern California.
Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said at least 1,000 campground and hotel reservations have been canceled inside Yosemite and hundreds of visitors have left the park. Typically about 800 to 900 employees work in Yosemite Valley, but Gediman on Wednesday said that number had dropped to less than 100.
“There’s still going to be employees here, but anyone here is essential just for keeping operations going,” Gediman said.
Jim Mackensen, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said that so far $35.4 million has been spent fighting the Ferguson Fire. That’s not including the damage cost.
Some international visitors to Yosemite from overseas also had to face the harsh reality of cutting their trips short. Tom Caiger, 20, and his girlfriend were filling up on gas in Wawona, a community within Yosemite National Park, after the British couple were forced out of the park.
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Caiger said he and his girlfriend were able to hang out by the river and go on hikes before returning to their campsite Tuesday, where they found a note from the park service stating they needed to leave.
The couple were visiting different parts of the United States from London and had made a trip to San Francisco before arriving at Yosemite. Their next stop is Kings Canyon National Park, Caiger said.
The closure of Yosemite Valley was not only causing headaches for travelers. It contributed to higher than usual traffic congestion on roads into the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, where officials said Wednesday that campgrounds and lodging were full and visitors would be helped on a first-come first-serve basis. Commercial tour bus operators are discouraged from visiting the parks during the high traffic.
“It’s kind of a pain, but what are you going to do. There’s not much you can do about a wildfire, is there?” Caiger said Wednesday.
Deep in the mountains in Yosemite, Josh Contreras was running business as usual at the Pine Tree Market on Chilnualna Falls Road. The grocery store is a popular stop for firefighters battling the Ferguson Fire, which has burned and grown in size for nearly two weeks. Contreras said the smoke has gotten “pretty bad.” Ash from the fire fell in places as far as Oakhurst.
The air inside Yosemite Valley has been at hazardous levels for at least an hour daily in the past few days, according to Yosemite National Park superintendent Michael Reynolds, who spoke at a community meeting Tuesday before announcing Yosemite Valley’s closure.
But store manager Contreras said he planned to stay open “as long as the boss keeps the store open and the government allows us to be open.” Firefighters typically stop in the early mornings to pick up breakfast items and then head out to the fire line, Contreras said.
“People are really appreciative that we’re here,” Contreras said Wednesday. “We’re absolutely happy to be open and help them.”
One firefighter has been killed fighting the Ferguson Fire. Seven others have been injured and nearly 4,000 firefighters have responded to the blaze. Containment stands at 25 percent. Park officials plan to reopen Yosemite Valley by Sunday.
Correction: This story was updated to show Wawona is within Yosemite National Park. An earlier version stated it was outside the park.