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Yosemite Park Reopens, But Fire's Toll on Tourism Still Felt

The nearly three-week closure was the result of a wildfire that has burned 150 square miles and killed two firefighters since it started July 13

What to Know

  • Most of Yosemite National Park reopened Tuesday after being closed for nearly three weeks due to the Ferguson Fire
  • Tens of thousands of visitors from across the globe canceled trips to the region because of the park's closure
  • Visitor bureaus in the area and the park are roughly estimating $50 million in combined tourism dollar losses

Yosemite National Park reopened its scenic valley Tuesday after a nearly three-week closure due to nearby wildfires but advised visitors to expect some smoke in the air and limited lodging and food services in the popular California park.

Meanwhile, a blaze in Montana prompted a hasty evacuation of hundreds of visitors at another national park.

At least nine homes and cabins in a historic district of Glacier National Park were destroyed in a wildfire that raged through the Montana park's busiest area, with hundreds of summer homes, cabins and a lakefront lodge.

See the Size of the Mendocino Fire

With more than 283,000 acres burned, the Mendocino Complex Fire in Northern California is now the biggest-ever in the state. But how big is it, in relation to places you recognize? Use the map below to explore the size of the fire on top of your city, state, or zip code.

Source: US Geological Survey
Credit: Peter Andringa/NBC

Park officials said the lost buildings include the so-called Big House at Kelly's Camp, a resort developed early last century serving auto travelers along Glacier's famous Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Glacier Conservancy Executive Director Doug Mitchell says it's a "gut punch" to lose some of the park's iconic buildings.

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Firefighters managed to save several historic structures that caught fire. Among them were the Lake McDonald Ranger station and the Wheeler Cabin, built by the family of Montana's former U.S. Sen. Burton Wheeler.

The wildfires raging through parts of the West Coast have caused massive financial losses to parks and nearby communities and also forced thousands of tourists to cancel visits.

Yosemite's 20-day closure came during the busiest month for tourism. The park draws more than 600,000 visitors during a typical August, according to the National Park Service.

Undeterred by lingering haze, cars packed with visitors lined up at Yosemite entrance gates where tourists said they didn't mind the slightly obscured vistas.

"It's smoky, but you can see most of the mountains — just not the tops," said Dutch tourist Gert Lammers, who entered a gate on the western side of the park near the town of El Portal, driving past fire crews and burned out cars and structures.

"We feel lucky that it's open today," said Lammers, 48, who heads back to Holland on Friday after a three-week tour of California with his wife and two children.

Tens of thousands of visitors from across the globe had to cancel their trips to Yosemite, which shut its famed valley on July 25 due to smoke from a nearby wildfire that has burned 150 square miles (389 square kilometers) and killed two firefighters since it started July 13. Though the blaze didn't reach the heart of Yosemite Valley, it burned in remote areas of the park and choked popular areas with smoke.

Park spokeswoman Jamie Richards said Tuesday that Yosemite was still calculating the financial impacts to the park, noting that not all campsites were reopening immediately and visitors should check the park's website to see what services were still closed.

"Yosemite Valley and the majority of Yosemite National Park is reopened to all visitors, however services within the park will be limited," Richards said, including some lodging and food services. "We are working to get campgrounds back up and running."

A major road from the south, Highway 41, and a popular park attraction known as Glacier Point will remain closed for likely at least another week for fire operations, park officials said.

Air quality in the park will vary depending on the time of day and location.

"You are going to smell and see smoke," Richards said, adding however that from her office in Yosemite Valley she was looking out at clear, blue skies Tuesday morning.

Visitor bureaus in the area and the park are estimating roughly $50 million in combined tourism losses, said Steve Montalto, creative director at Visit Yosemite Madera County.

"From an economic standpoint, it's majorly significant to the region," said Montalto, who visited one of the most popular attractions at the park, the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, when it reopened Monday ahead of the larger opening Tuesday.

"It's like a big breath of fresh air to be able to get in there and explore these places again," he said.

Officials are trying to get the word out that the park is back open. They have posted pictures of themselves and visitors at attractions holding red paddleboards that say #YosemiteNOW, and they're encouraging visitors to do the same.

The park's reopening couldn't come soon enough for Douglas Shaw, who runs a hotel just outside Yosemite. He's one of hundreds of business owners in small communities surrounding Yosemite who depend on traffic to and from the park.

Shaw says the park's closure wiped out his savings account and cost him $200,000 in lost revenue. He had to lay off eight of his 43 employees, and is considering early retirement to avoid a possible future with similar devastating wildfires.

"If I hadn't had savings, which is depleted, I'd be scrambling for money or I wouldn't have a business," Shaw said Monday. "It's a huge setback."

While hotel owners and other business are relieved about the opening, they say it will likely be weeks before their bookings return to normal.

Shaw said his hotel probably won't be more than 45 percent booked this week, when normally it's sold out well in advance. There were just 10 people staying there Monday night, he said.

"Once the closure hit that three-week mark, there's a full panic across the board for visitors, whether they're from Beijing or Paris or San Francisco," he said.

As for the park, the dent in visitor fees will impact park improvements, such as fixing roads and updating facilities, Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said.

Because those projects are planned years in advance, all improvements for this year will be covered but projects in the future will be affected, Gediman said, though it was too soon to know which ones.

The so-called Ferguson Fire near Yosemite is one of several devastating blazes in California that have killed at least a dozen people — the latest being a firefighter from Utah who died Monday while battling the largest fire in recorded state history north of San Francisco.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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