Flames rise Wednesday behind a vacant house as a firefighter works to halt the Detwiler wildfire near Mariposa, Calif. As wildfires rage throughout the western United States, one California blaze in the rugged mountains outside of Yosemite National Park forced thousands of nearby residents to flee their homes.
MARIPOSA, Calif. — A surging wildfire raced through California mountains and foothills west of Yosemite National Park on Wednesday, forcing thousands to flee tiny, Gold Rush-era towns and wafting smoky haze over the park’s landmark Half Dome rock face.
The 4-day-old blaze nearly doubled in size overnight from about 40 square miles to more than 70 square miles, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.
At its closest, the blaze was still about 35 miles from the boundary of Yosemite, where campgrounds are open, park spokesman Scott Gediman said. The fire closed one of several roads into the park during its busy summer season, and rangers warned visitors with respiratory problems to be mindful of the haze, Gediman said.
Among park visitors Gediman talked to, “people understanding fire is a naturally occurring thing,” he said. “Nobody was upset about it.”
Yosemite does not appear at risk from the fire, which was moving south Wednesday, away from the park, California fire spokesman Jordan Motta said. The fire has forced more than 4,000 people from homes in and around a half-dozen small communities, officials said.
Heavy smoke hung in the air over Mariposa, a town of 2,000 with century-old wooden buildings, including what’s touted as the oldest active courthouse west of the Rocky Mountains.
Downtown Mariposa was empty except for firefighters and other emergency workers. Flames were visible on slopes about a mile away.
The fire was threatening about 1,500 homes and other buildings, after already destroying eight structures. It’s not clear what type of buildings burned. It is burning near California 49, a historical route winding its way up California foothills of the western Sierra Nevada dotted with little towns that sprouted along the gold mother lode that drew miners to California in the 1800s. Record rain and snowfall in the mountains this winter abruptly ended California’s five-year drought. But that has increased the challenge for crews battling flames feeding on dense vegetation.