We had no inkling that anything was wrong until we reached Crane Flat, where a ranger told us the road down to Yosemite Valley was closed.
Claudia had said that the wildflowers were nice in the Yosemite high country, so we decided to go for a hike up there yesterday afternoon. We drove through El Portal sometime between 3:00 and 3:30 p.m. and continued up the Big Oak Flat Road to Crane Flat. Everything seemed normal. Near Yosemite Creek we passed the Dark Hole Fire. This is a lightning-caused fire that the park service is letting burn, but it looked pretty active yesterday afternoon, with a big smoke plume.
We continued on past Tuolumne Meadows, started our hike, and found some gorgeous wildflowers (you can see a photograph below). Then we returned to the car, and started home at about 10 p.m. Near Yosemite Creek I decided to stop and photograph the Dark Hole Fire (below), then we continued west back to Crane Flat, where we saw a ranger vehicle blocking the road down to Yosemite Valley.
We were surprised that the road was closed, since we’d just driven up it a few hours earlier. The ranger let us through, since we had a park sticker, but he told us there was no stopping, and to watch out for fire crews. Fire crews? We knew these crews weren’t for the Dark Hole Fire, as that was miles away, and still pretty small. What had happened?
We found out as we passed the little community of Foresta, on the western edge of the park. There were flames all around Foresta, and up on the ridges to the west. It looked like at least 1,000 acres had burned.
We continued down Highway 140 (which was still open). As we came around a bend in the canyon, we could see an orange glow over El Portal. We feared that the whole town had burned, but when we got there the town looked intact, though there were big flames on the hillside just above it.
We were in shock. How did this all happen so quickly? We had passed through El Portal that afternoon, and didn’t notice anything unusual. We returned to a surreal universe filled with flames and anxiety.
Claudia and I decided to drive up to Highway 41 to see if we could find a an overview of the fire. We ended up along the Glacier Point Road, where I made the photograph at the top of this post. El Portal can be seen between the trees, near the bottom of the canyon left of center. Foresta is just to the right of the dead snag. That snag was burned in the 1990 Steamboat Fire, while the other, living trees in the foreground have grown up since then, so they’re 23 or 24 years old. We remember that fire well, since our son Kevin was born two weeks after it started. He’s the same age as those young trees.
We later learned that yesterday’s fire started in El Portal around 3:15 p.m. – about the time we first drove by. Several residents have reported that the fire was caused by a short in a power line, though these reports are unconfirmed. The fire then spread quickly up the ridge to Foresta. There are no reports of injuries, but there are reports that some structures have been lost, though no word on how many, or whether they were homes or other buildings. As of this morning the El Portal Fire, as its being called, had burned 2100 acres. The Fresno Bee reports that over 400 firefighters are on hand, along with six helicopters, eight air tankers, and a DC-10.
Old El Portal and Foresta have been evacuated, and the Big Oak Flat Road between Highway 120 and Yosemite Valley is still closed. The Tioga Road (Highway 120) is open, and can be reached through its eastern and western entrances, but not from Yosemite Valley. The rest of the park is open as well, including Highway 140, Highway 41, the Glacier Point Road, and Yosemite Valley, although most of Yosemite is very smoky today.
Another year, another major fire in the area. We’re worried about our friends in El Portal and Foresta, and hope that this fire ends with no injuries, and a minimum of property damage. And I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we’ll slip through the rest of the fire season relatively unscathed, but it’s only July, so we have a long way to go.
— Michael Frye
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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.