Locals Describe Terrible Conditions as Yosemite Closes Due to Heavy Smoke

Yosemite National Park has closed to visitors due to hazardous air conditions caused from local wildfires.
Yosemite National Park has closed to visitors due to hazardous air conditions caused by heavy smoke from local wildfires. Max Buschini

“I’m so sick of the smoke,” Alex Gloor from Eagle Eye Tree Service told me this morning over coffee on his way to work. “I can’t see the surrounding hills; it feels like a prison here.”

Gloor is my neighbor here in Mariposa, the town of 2,173 people nestled in the Sierra foothills and located 40 miles north of the Creek Fire –– a blaze that started 12 days ago and has grown to nearly 245,000 acres as of September 17. Mariposa is a gateway town to Yosemite National Park, which is currently inundated with thick smoke.

Though Mariposa’s skies are thick with a heavy plume — where the Air Quality Index peaked at 504 this week — Yosemite Valley has it much worse. I just got off the phone with a Yosemite Hospitality employee who said, “as I look up from my cabin, I see a red sun over Glacier Point, but I can’t see Glacier Point.”

“I’m getting out tonight. It’s so bad I just want to breathe some fresh air. I’m heading to San Francisco, where the AQI is 28. Our index in the park was at 749 when I checked at 11 a.m. today,” the employee added.

Plumes of smoke from wildfires have caused hazardous smoke conditions in the Yosemite valley.
Plumes of smoke from the Creek Fire has caused hazardous smoke conditions in the Yosemite valley. Max Buschini

The growing Creek Fire is adding to the already chaotic times in Yosemite, which is currently under restrictions due to the pandemic.

He continued, “It’s a feeling of uncertainty here. Due to COVID-19, our department is understaffed, and I’ve recently had to move to a new place in employee housing to comply with CDC single-occupancy guidelines. The company is trying to separate everybody.”

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The plume surrounding Mariposa feels like low-lying fog, and though it’s terrible here, the families in Oakhurst and the small neighboring town of Sugar Pine — which are butted up against the Creek Fire — have it worse. Rumors of AQI in the 700s are reported in Sugar Pine, home to Jason Torlano, his wife and their two kids.

“My son Jeremy has been helping me chip wood and clear the surrounding property so we can hopefully make it through,” Torlano says, adding that the Creek Fire is burning six miles from his home. “This week 16 people came out from Yosemite and the surrounding foothills to help do fire clearance. I feel blessed to have the tribe we have in Yosemite, people who at the drop of a hat show up to help.”

Yosemite Closing

Mariposa resident Ken Yager, 61, says, “It’s smoky, burny, you can smell burning wood. Eyes are burning; my lungs feel tight from breathing it all day and night for the past ten days. It gives you a feeling that you have a cold, which is scary during COVID.”

Yager, founder of the Yosemite Climbing Association and the annual Yosemite Facelift event (which this year has gone virtual) splits his time between Mariposa and Yosemite Valley. “I’m seeing more animals being hit by cars. Animals are trying to escape too,” he says.

Yosemite's sky has turned into a surreal orange from the heavy smoke.
Yosemite’s sky has turned into a surreal orange from the heavy smoke. Ken Yager

Moments ago, he got word that he’d have to evacuate the park due to smoke and fire.

“Yosemite National Park announces that the park will close to all visitors and vehicular access due to significant smoke impacts and hazardous air quality throughout the park. All park entrance stations and roads will close beginning at 5:00 pm tonight, Thursday, September 17, 2020.

With air quality projected to be in the unhealthy to hazardous range over the next several days, the park anticipates the closure to be in effect at least throughout the weekend. The park will continue to assess the smoke impacts, air quality index, and fire activity throughout the region. Yosemite National Park will reopen to visitors when conditions improve, and it is safe for visitors and employees to be in Yosemite National Park,” reads the official statement from Yosemite National Park.  

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Wind Event Coming to Mammoth Lakes

The Creek Fire is moving east toward Mammoth Lakes. As of September 17 at 2 p.m., it’s only 15 miles as the crow flies from town. Natalie Morrow, Fire Marshal for Mammoth Lakes Fire Department, told me earlier today, “It’s a waiting period now. We have to see what the fire’s going to do.”

“We have no evacuation orders in place right now [but] we do have a wind event that will potentially start at 2 p.m. through 2 a.m. on Saturday if anything happens, if there is an evacuation, people will be notified.”

Even without an evacuation order, the smoke is so thick that some Mammoth residents are leaving for cleaner air. “I’ve never seen smoke conditions like this,” Morrow says, “You’re looking at 2.5 million acres burned in California alone.”

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