One of America’s most popular national parks, Yosemite, was closed Thursday as wildfires continued to scorch the West Coast, filling the air with toxic smoke and prompting evacuations in Southern California, officials said.
The federal government-run air quality monitor, Airnow.gov, showed that pollutant levels in the park were so high that they exceeded the site’s index.
Thick smoke shrouds Yosemite Valley and the Merced River on Sept. 12 in Yosemite National Park.Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Dangerous air quality is expected in the park, which is spread across nearly 1,200 square miles in the Sierra Nevadas, for the next several days, the National Park Service said. It isn’t clear when Yosemite will reopen.
Two wildfires were burning in or near the park, including the massive Creek Fire to the south. The 244,756-acre blaze ignited this month, trapping dozens of people at a campground in Sierra National Forest and destroying hundreds of homes and other buildings.
The fire was 18 percent contained Thursday.
To the south, the Bobcat Fire continued to burn across thousands of acres of national forestland in the San Gabriel Mountains, just north of Los Angeles.
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While firefighters have so far kept it from damaging a historic observatory in Angeles National Forest, the fire roared overnight toward Juniper Hills, an unincorporated community of about 400 homes in the San Gabriel foothills.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department issued evacuation orders for Juniper Hills and other nearby communities Thursday afternoon.
Aeronautical engineer David Borden, president of the Juniper Hills Community Association, said he saw flames a couple of miles from his home early Thursday while he was preparing to go to work in the nearby city of Palmdale.
So Borden, 62, loaded his birth certificate, musical instruments, family pictures and other personal items into his car before leaving. While speaking to a reporter Thursday afternoon, he was returning to Juniper Hills to see whether his home was still there.
He said he wasn’t sure how far he’d get or where he’d stay if he couldn’t get home.
“After a certain point, what can you do?” he said. “It’s like complaining that it’s raining outside. You might as well deal with it.”
A record 3.4 million acres have burned in California this year, a staggering number that officials and experts have attributed to climate change and a buildup of dried vegetation. Twenty-five people have died in the state, and 5,400 structures have burned.
In Oregon, where fast-moving wildfires have scorched more than 1 million acres, destroyed more than 1,000 homes and killed eight people, Travis Cook’s mother and his brother died while waiting to evacuate from her home in the Elkhorn Valley, east of Salem, he told NBC affiliate KGW of Portland.
When Travis Cook spoke to his mother, Cathy Cook, 71, last week, she said she and Travis’ brother, Justin Cook, 41, had packed their bags and were awaiting the order to leave, KGW reported. But Travis Cook said the order appears to have come too late — a search-and-rescue team found their bodies near her home in a neighborhood devastated by the Beachie Creek Fire.
“It feels like a nightmare,” he told KGW. “I still cannot believe — I wake up in the mornings and it’s just, like, is this really happening?”
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Speaking to reporters Thursday, Gov. Kate Brown called the devastation from the blaze, which was at 191,238 acres with 20 percent containment, “all-encompassing and shocking.”
Still, she said, the forecast had good news: Rain is expected on the coast, as well as on both slopes of the Cascade Mountains, which span the state, beginning Thursday night. Another official, Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, said the rain could cause flooding in the areas that have burned, however.
The National Weather Service had issued flash flood watches across the state, he said, “so please be cognizant of that.”