El Portal fire creeps up on Yosemite National Park (+video)

Several major fires are burning across California and the West, with the El Portal fire nearing a stand of sequoia trees in Yosemite National Park.

By , Staff writer

The massive El Portal fire in central California swelled to 3,545 acres Wednesday and has cut off several access points into Yosemite National Park. Mandatory evacuations remain in effect for Foresta, Calif., a community of just over 1,000 people.

Fire crews have been battling the blaze since the fire broke out in El Portal at approximately 3 p.m. Pacific time on Saturday afternoon. Fire crews are contending with very steep, remote terrain and temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. More than 800 fire personnel are working to battle the blaze, which is so far just 34 percent contained, according to the National Park Service.

Several area campgrounds and a few roads leading to Yosemite have been closed, but the park itself, including Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point, and Mariposa Grove, remains open. The blaze is nearing a the Merced grove of giant sequoia trees located just inside the western boundary of the park. However, giant sequoias are a fire-adapted species; not only is their bark fire resistant, but the trees actually need fires to reproduce – to open the sequoia cone and distribute the tiny seeds.

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Wildfires are a frequent occurrence in Yosemite, though the historic drought that has gripped much of California for the third year in a row has heightened concerns this season.

Lightning poses a near-constant wildfire threat. The National Park Service recorded more than 3,000 lightning strikes in the 10-day period between July 14 and 24. In most cases, those fires remain small and burn less than one-tenth of an acre. Fire crews are monitoring a handful such fires that are currently smoldering elsewhere in the park.

Firefighters battling another fire about 100 miles to the north in the Sierra Nevada foothills have gained the upper hand. On Sunday nearly 2,000 firefighters struggled to contend with the so-called Sand fire, which began on Friday. By Tuesday fire crews were able to contain the fire by 85 percent and to redeploy some firefighters to other areas. The blaze has destroyed 19 homes and 48 outbuildings, according to state fire Battalion Chief Scott McLean. The blaze reportedly grew so hot that the sand along a nearby river fused to glass.

Fire crews are battling an additional blaze in the Sierra National Forest about 60 miles northeast of Fresno, Calif., which threatens some 5,600 acres. In Washington State, the Carlton Complex fire has consumed 251,000 acres of the the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Several additional fires are burning Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Nevada, and Montana.

[Editor's note: The original subheading for this story misidentified which grove of sequoias the fire is nearing.]

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