At the peak of the tourist season, Yosemite Valley and large sections of Yosemite National Park have been shut down, as fire crews work feverishly to contain the Ferguson Fire.
Visitors to the Valley were asked to evacuate, as fire officials feared that Highway 41 could quickly become “a very dangerous place,” according to National Park Service spokesman Michael Reynolds.
So far, the blaze has consumed about 55,000 acres of wild land and is 30 percent contained, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Yosemite National Park is one of the country’s most popular destinations, according to the National Parks Service. In 2016 Yosemite attracted a record 5 million visitors, most of whom remained within the 5.9 square miles of Yosemite Valley.
Smoke caused by the fire has been a serious concern for both fire and park officials. The air inside Yosemite Valley has been at hazardous levels for at least one hour a day in the past few days, Reynolds said.
In fact, according to Bay Area News Group, the Ferguson Fire has generated so much smoke that “air pollution levels in Yosemite Valley are worse than in Beijing, one of the world’s most polluted cities.”
“I’ve never seen numbers this high, and I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” said Dave Conway, deputy officer for the Mariposa County Air Pollution Control District.
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The Ferguson fire began July 13. It has burned an area larger than the city of San Francisco. And as flames ravaged through brush and dead trees from California’s recent drought, choking levels of soot were generated.
Particulate pollution in the valley has reached levels at least twice as high as that of Beijing every day since the fire started in mid-July. Peak particulate levels in Yosemite Valley were nearly five times as high as those in China’s capital city, and nearly 15 times higher than levels deemed safe by the EPA.
Which is why Conway is telling park visitors, “Go home.”
“I hate to be that blunt about it, but it’s not going to be the experience they want and the air is going to be hazardous at times,” he said.
“If people have any known heart concerns, breathing concerns or if they have kids, people should avoid the park.”
Areas of the park that will remain closed until at least July 29 include all hotels, campgrounds, and visitor services in Yosemite Valley and Wawona.
Tioga Road and Tuolumne Meadows, including Big Oak Flat and Tioga Pass entrances, and Hetch Hetchy remain open for now.
Featured Image: National Park Service, Public Domain