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Ferguson Fire creates 'sad' situation for some Yosemite businesses

Ferguson Fire creates 'sad' situation for some Yosemite businesses

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Part of Yosemite National Park in California is closing as firefighters battled to contain a huge wildfire just to the west that has threatened the park's forest and filled it with smoke. Yosemite Valley will be closed until at least Sunday. (July 25) AP

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The voracious wildfire that has scorched 85 square miles near California's Yosemite National Park will keep the iconic Yosemite Valley closed to visitors until at least Friday afternoon, a brutal hit for some businesses that rely on the park for survival.

Yosemite Valley, featuring attractions such as Yosemite Falls, El Capitan and Half Dome, is a small fraction of the magnificent park that sprawls across more than 1,100 square miles. The valley, the top draw for tourists, has been off-limits since last week because of heavy smoke from the wildfire that has roared since July 13.

Liz and Ron Skelton operate the Yosemite Blue Butterfly Inn in El Portal, just outside the park entrance into Yosemite Valley. Liz Skelton estimates the closure will cost them $25,000 or more.

"It's really sad for the small, local businesses like us that can't afford cancellation insurance," she said. "And I've had to send sad emails to people coming from all around the world explaining that we had to close."

But business owners near other areas around park say the news – and the view – isn't all bad. The glacial Hetch Hetchy Valley in the northwestern section of the park remains open.

"Some reports make it sound like the entire park is closed and it is definitely not," said Ambria Witt, head innkeeper for the Hotel Charlotte and the Groveland Hotel near the park's Big Oak Flat entrance.

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The entrance remains open and her hotels full, she said.

"There are great sites in this area that you might not see if you just go to Yosemite Valley," she said. "There is some gorgeous hiking, and guests are enjoying it."

Authorities had planned to open the seven-mile long Yosemite Valley on Sunday, but extended the closure due to excessive smoke and firefighting operations in the area. When it opens, "limited visitor services will be available inside Yosemite Valley, including campgrounds, lodging, and food service operations," the park service warned.

The park service also warned visitors to sections of the park that remained open to expect "poor air quality and visibility." Witt said, however, that the area near Groveland was not affected.

The fire, one of more than a dozen raging across the state, was blamed for one fatality: A bulldozer operator for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Seven people have been injured.

Much of the fire is burning in steep, rugged terrain with little to no access roads. Mandatory and advisory evacuations are in place in several areas, but no homes have been damaged or destroyed, fire officials said.

Almost 4,000 firefighters are combating the fire, aided by hundreds of engines, bulldozers and 16 helicopters. There have been gains, and the fire was listed at 30 percent contained.

In El Portal, Liz Skelton says peak season for her business is April to October. Now is prime time.

"It's going to be hard this season," she said. "But that's OK; we are just glad the building hasn't burned down."

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