Merced County fires contained; focus remains on Yosemite blaze

The El Portal fire along the edge of Yosemite National Park had charred more than 3,000 acres and was 19 percent contained Tuesday, a jump from the 5 percent containment cited by fire officials the day before.

Three fires burning in Merced County are winding down but remain under observation, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials.

Residents of Old El Portal were allowed to return to the community Tuesday morning, but the community of Foresta and its roughly 45 homes remains evacuated.

El Portal, a small, mostly bedroom community for National Park Service employees along Highway 140, rests below Foresta. The fire destroyed one Foresta duplex.

On Tuesday morning, 640 fire personnel continued to battle the blaze, which was headed roughly north, according to personnel with the Park Service. Officials were watching the sky, because the 20 percent chance of thunderstorms late Tuesday could affect the fire – either with helpful rain or dangerous lightning strikes.

A strike team made up of five fire engines drew firefighters from departments in the region – Merced, Los Banos, Mariposa Public Utilities District, Mariposa County and Madera County, according to fire officials. The strike team was assigned to protect structures in Foresta.

Two emergency medical technicians from the Merced area also deployed.

The Dark Hole fire, another Yosemite blaze, had burned about 580 acres and was 5 percent contained Tuesday. The fire, begun by a lightning strike July 16, is burning near Yosemite Creek Campground off Tioga Road, the Highway 120 connector over the Sierra Nevada. An estimated 35 firefighters are working to ensure this fire, burning in the high country, doesn’t get out of hand.

Big Oak Flat Road, or Highway 120, remains closed from the Crane Flat gas station to its juncture with Highway 140. There was no estimated opening for the road on Tuesday morning.

Yosemite Valley is accessible via Highways 140 and 41. Highway 120 remains open from the east side of the Sierra, along Tioga Road, through the town of Groveland and beyond.

Three Yosemite campsites – Crane Flat, Yosemite Creek and Bridalveil Creek – remain closed.

Because of the fires, the annual apple picking, scheduled for today in Yosemite Valley, has been postponed. The picking is part of a program to reduce the number of encounters between people and black bears by removing non-native food sources.

Merced County’s three fires are 100 percent contained as of Tuesday, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jeremy Rahn said, but one engine at each site will continue to monitor the flames. “We’re going to continue to have personnel on them through the end of the week,” he said.

A fire that broke out about 3:30 p.m. Saturday near Hatfield State Recreation Area has burned roughly 930 acres, which is slightly less than officials originally estimated.

More than 105 firefighters have helped battle that blaze since Saturday, including firefighters from Merced, Mariposa, Tuolumne and Stanislaus counties and the city of Newman.

The Merced County Sheriff’s Department on Saturday eradicated about 6,700 marijuana plants in that same area. The fire broke out about two hours after deputies left. Authorities said they have not ruled out the possibility of a connection between the fire and the marijuana-growing operation.

A 225-acre fire burning about five miles southeast of Howard Road and Highway 140 continues to be 100 percent contained. That fire was first reported about 11 a.m. Sunday and nearly 40 firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze.

A fire that started Thursday and burned more than 400 acres near Gun Club Road and Santa Fe Grade, between Gustine and Los Banos, also remains at 100 percent containment.

The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.