Image: Fire near Yosemite
Peter Dasilva  /  EPA
Fire retardant from a helicopter showers down ahead of a hotspot along the Merced River as a fire burns Tuesday 10 miles outside Yosemite Valley National Park.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 7/30/2008 7:34:46 PM ET 2008-07-30T23:34:46

Firefighters on Wednesday pushed back the flames enough to reopen the main western highway into Yosemite National Park.

The fire, which was now 40 percent contained, has destroyed 21 homes. Officials previously said 25 homes were destroyed, but revised their tally after discovering four of the structures were outbuildings.

Authorities had temporarily shut down a 10-mile stretch of Highway 140. The road has reopened, but officials are still recommending tourists take alternate routes to give fire engines enough room to maneuver.

The fire has charred more than 50 square miles of steep, rugged terrain since a target shooter sparked the wildfire Friday.

In all, more than 2,000 blazes have scorched about 1,700 square miles around California — mostly on national forest land — this year.

Some 3,800 fire crews are battling the fire along the Merced River canyon.

"The fire is burning ... on both sides of the river," the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported Wednesday. "The fire is burning with a rapid rate of spread in multiple directions."

"Accessibility problems due to steep and rocky terrain," are a problem, the department added, and "active fire behavior is being observed in all directions primarily on the south and east flanks."

The fire has also forced the evacuation of 350 homes in the towns of Midpines and Coulterville, gateway communities whose businesses rely on tourist dollars to stay afloat. In all, some 4,000 homes in the area are considered threatened.

Visitors seeking to enter the park from the west were turned around Tuesday, when authorities temporarily shut down a 10-mile stretch of Highway 140.

The western gate itself remained open for residents of the nearby community of El Portal and visitors staying near the park entrance. Other entrances to the park also remained open, and many travelers said they were gladly staying put.

Earlier rock slide hurt tourism
Vendors along Highway 140 were finally seeing business turn around following a rock slide that kept tour buses away for the previous two years.

That was before the massive wildfire closed the highway Tuesday and sent towering plumes of smoke and ash over one of the nation's most celebrated wilderness areas.

"It's like we just get on our feet and they kick the stool out from under us," said Donna Santi, a gift shop clerk in Mariposa. "Still, the business will survive. We're more worried about the residents."

Visitors seeking to photograph Yosemite's famed peaks instead took shots of monoliths obscured by flying ash blowing in from the wildfire burning just 12 miles outside the park.

The haze has left one of California's most popular destinations shrouded in smoke at the height of Yosemite's busiest season.

"It's the views that are really disappointing," said Karen Brown, a 45-year-old mother of two from Phoenix. "We do two major trips a year and this was one of them. It's not like we can shoot back here in a month."

Brown said her family was packing up a day early to avoid suffering from irritated eyes and sore throats. The children had been "using their imaginations to experience Yosemite," she said, but ventured they would prefer clear views of Lake Tahoe.

Patricio Aguirre, 48, visiting from Argentina, smiled as his wife and children marveled, through a white haze, at Half Dome's imposing shoulder.

"It's a great shame because we know what's burning now won't regenerate for many years," Aguirre said. "My children laugh at me, but I tell them they have to see the good in this. It's not every day one can see Yosemite burn."

At summer's peak, as many as 4,000 visitors a day stream into the park, and rangers expect the fire will keep very few people away.

Officials with DNC Parks and Resorts at Yosemite, which manages restaurants and lodging in the park, said only about 2 percent of all overnight guests have asked for refunds since Saturday, when the transmission line that fed power to Yosemite was destroyed in the fire.

Hotels, stores and most restaurants in the park have remained open, but have been operating on generators. On Tuesday, 245 guest rooms at the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls remained without power, and lodge staff were handing out flashlights and offering free hot showers at nearby Curry Village. Limited electricity was restored Tuesday afternoon in El Portal, near the park's western boundary.

"We're seeing a few people departing maybe because they have health concerns about the air quality, but virtually everyone's staying in the park," said Kenny Karst, a spokesman for the concessionaire. "Our main message is we're open. The stables are open, we've got river rafting, and we're leading all kinds of hikes and trips to the backcountry."

$50,000 reward in earlier fire
Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday announced a $50,000 reward for information leading to the person who ignited a destructive wildfire last month.

The mid-June blaze destroyed 87 homes in and around the town of Paradise and charred more than 23,000 acres in Butte County, about 90 miles north of Sacramento. The fire contributed to at least one death, an elderly woman who suffered a heart attack while evacuating.

In Montana, crews on Tuesday dug in against a 5,900-acre wildfire threatening the ski town of Red Lodge, 60 miles southwest of Billings. The immediate threat to the town appeared to have eased, but flame-whipping winds were forecast to pick up overnight.

The fire remained about eight miles outside town and two miles from the Red Lodge Mountain Resort. Authorities had told residents of about 200 homes west of town that an evacuation order could come at any time.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Yosemite tourists smoked out, but not kept out

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