YOSEMITE VILLAGE, Calif. - For outdoor adventurers Steve and Sue Overby, their week-long vacation to Yosemite National Park has come with an unexpected bonus: fewer crowds along with traditionally glorious late summer weather.
"The campsite sign says full, but we've been here a week and you can tell that some folks have decided not to come," says Steve of Gresham, Ore.
The couple has visited this fabled park more than two dozen times, and even honeymooned here 37 years ago. Nothing, not even the raging Rim Fire, was going to keep them away.
Says Sue: "No doubt, if I just saw images of the fire on the news, I'm not sure I'd come. But we checked things out ahead of time, and knew we'd be OK."
As Labor Day Weekend nears, Park service officials here are eager to get the word out that it's business as usual in the country's first national park, which sprawls over 750,000 acres and soars from bear-stalked meadows to 13,000-foot granite peaks with celebrated names like El Capitan and Half Dome.
SHIFTING WINDS: Yosemite fire turns north toward Lake Tahoe
Apart from slightly thinned out crowds - noticeable everywhere from half-filled trolleys that tour the valley floor to some empty benches during ranger presentations - the park so far bears little trace of the inferno that burns some 20 miles to the north.
The sky is almost devoid of haze. The smell of smoke is all but imperceptible. And the tourists who are here seem pleased not to have to elbow their way to bucolic photo-ready sights that include deer nibbling on apples and Half Dome reflected in the mirror-finish of the Merced River.
"Visitors are certainly talking about the fire, but once they see how beautiful things are here that usually stops," says park ranger and spokesman Scott Gediman, a 17-year veteran of Yosemite. "To date, only 3 per cent of the park is on fire. While it's certainly a serious thing and we don't want anyone to get hurt, it's also all part of nature and the wildness of a national park."
In fact, park service literature handed out to visitors includes a two-page pamphlet on "The Role of Natural Fire." The brochure notes that fire controls disease and insects and burns off dead vegetation, contributing to the health of the forest. Prior to modern fire suppression efforts, some 16,000 acres burned in Yosemite each summer.
Gediman says he expects this Labor Day - the third busiest time here after Memorial Day and the Fourth of July - to be "a little off the peak" of more than 5,000 cars per day, but attributes some of that dip to many schools being already back in session. Each year, Yosemite welcomes roughly 4 million tourists from around the world.
"I'm guessing we may see around 3,000 (cars per day) this weekend, but we'll see," he says. "While some people have called to cancel, often there are people on line for waiting for reservations to open up."
Yosemite's various accommodations - from tent cabins at Curry Village to the posh Ahwahnee Lodge - can sleep 1,300 visitors, though factoring in camp sites brings the total closer to 10,000 guests. So far, just the White Wolf Lodge a ways outside the park has been evacuated as a precautionary measure, says Lisa Cesaro, spokesperson for Delaware North Companies, which runs all the concessions and hotels in the park.
"We've found alternative lodging for all those guests, and are regularly updating anyone with existing reservations with travel advisories," says Cesaro. "The majority of visitors scheduled for White Wolf have taken us up on our offer of accommodations elsewhere within the park. The fire looks very dramatic when you see the footage, but it's not here."
But it's very real. Only 20% contained, the blaze is taxing the skills of around 3,800 firefighters who are battling the blaze with a range of airborne and land-based gear. So far some 160,000 acres have burned, or around 250 square miles, much of it north of the park. Given a current northerly breeze, smoke has been felt largely in communities around Lake Tahoe and in Reno, Nev.
A family camp near Groveland that was owned by the city of Berkeley was destroyed, and park officials said Camp Mather and Evergreen Lodge near the Hetch Hetchy reservoir both were closed due to encroaching flames.
One of the main impacts of the fire on those coming to Yosemite has been the closure of the hiking areas around Hetch Hetchy, which provides water to San Francisco 150 miles to the west. The sparkling body of water was the subject of a bitter fight on the part of John Muir and his Sierra Club, who argued that there was no need to dam a canyon whose beauty rivaled Yosemite's when San Francisco could access water from other potential reservoirs.
City officials were monitoring the clarity of the Hetchy Hetchy's water and moving some of it to reservoirs closer to the city. California Gov. Jerry Brown also declared a state of emergency for San Francisco given that some municipal buildings rely on power generated by the dam fed by Hetch Hetchy.
But perhaps the biggest snafu for potential Yosemite visitors is the closure of a popular artery into the park, Highway 120, which allows motorists coming from the Bay Area to avoid a more circuitous route south to Merced and then north to the park's southern entrance. Small town dotting that highway are bracing for possible evacuations.
Vacationers Chris and Paul Rossman of Eerie, Penn., didn't mind the extra driving required by the conflagration. The splendor of the Ahwahnee's lobby, a majestic place once visited by Queen Elizabeth, seems to have an erased any pains caused by the inconvenience.
"We would never have thought of canceling our trip," says Chris, adding that she had invested too much already in the couple's travel arrangements. "But it was great to get here and see that things are just fine."
She said they did stop to take a picture on the drive to Yosemite of a massive smoke cloud, which gave them both pause.
"Your eye can't see the red in it, but the camera does, and it's something," she says. It's not like (the fire) doesn't exist just because we don't see it. We know it does, and people are suffering, which is sad. But I am also happy to be able to come, because oh my gosh, it's so beautiful."
Sitting in the shade of massive sugar pines and redwoods, Martha Hennen was just hoping her long planned trip just outside of the valley floor would come off as expected after it was first set in motion nearly a year ago.
"Back in November we applied for a permit to hike to a couple of the high country camps in the park, and in March we heard we were granted two places," says Hennen, a veteran hiker from Falls Church, Va., whose backcountry adventure was set to begin on Tuesday.
"Fire is dangerous, but we're experienced hikers who have been out when the fire was so close you could smell it," she says of a past trip to the mountains around Bend, Oregon.
"As far as we know, the trip is still on. On the one hand, I know how important fire is to the regeneration of the forest. On the other, I'll be really disappointed if this gets canceled," she says. "I've been to Yosemite four times, but never to the high Sierra. It's supposed to be really unique."
The Rim Fire will determine whether Hennen makes it to her destination this week. But for those travelers with less ambitious plans, if Rim Fire remains at bay this weekend could well be among the best times in a long time to visit an atypically tranquil Yosemite Valley.
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