YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CALIF., AUG. 14 -- Raye Santos returned to her home inside the park here last Thursday to retrieve her car and belongings, left behind a day earlier when she and others were evacuated in the face of wind-blown fires.
"I was standing in my house when I knew for the first time that it was all over," Santos recalled today, telling how she saw fire approaching from 300 yards away.
A strong gust of wind brought flames closer, Santos said, so she quickly got in her car and drove away, without looking back. She said she heard explosions and thought they were of her husband's car and the house. "I kept driving," she said.
The fires, triggered by lightning a week ago, continued burning here today, and the park remained closed to the 10,000 tourists that usually visit each day. Authorities predicted that the three major fires would be contained Thursday and Friday.
One firefighter, Kenneth E. Anslow, 20, died in Chico of injuries suffered from a falling tree branch in another fire at Mendocino National Forest, becoming the first person to die in the latest rash of blazes.
A one-lane road leads into Santos's community of Foresta, where more than 50 homes are located on land that predates establishment of the park.
Officials are maintaining roadblocks, and residents remain curious about the fate of their houses, mostly vacation homes.
Lucille and George Lange apparently are more fortunate than Santos. They built a vacation home here 30 years ago and made it a permanent residence in 1985 when they retired.
Although the Langes have not seen their home, park officials and telephone repairmen in the area have reported that the aluminum-roofed structure is still standing, as is the tool shed while the hammock still hangs from a tree nearby.
Meanwhile, the Langes are living in their trailer in a parking lot near the park.
In five other western states and Alaska, 23,000 firefighters were battling today to contain 33 major fires and hundreds of smaller ones burning over 279,000 acres, about 50,000 fewer than the number reported ablaze Monday, according to officials at the Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
Three major fires are threatening Yosemite, one of the nation's natural wonders, and park officials evacuated tourists and residents last week, marking the first closing of the entire area in its 100 years as a national park.
The largest of the three fires is menacing 17,000 acres of forest and park land and has destroyed 68 structures in Foresta, authorities said. Eighteen buildings have escaped the blazes.
"This community was vulnerable to a fire storm," said Lynn McKenzie, Yosemite's chief park spokesman, stressing the importance of clearing a buffer around structures within a wooded area. "Many of these structures were not adequately protected."
Along the one-lane road, houses stood gutted, others were leveled and some remained unscathed. Most of the latter have aluminum roofs. About $3 million in damage has been tallied there.
An assessment team entered Foresta over the weekend but had to leave when winds increased and the area became too hazardous. Open wells, sewer pits, leaking propane tanks, melted metal, battery acid, burning logs and hot spots remain.
Before residents can return, authorities said, another assessment must be made of the danger of asbestos exposed during the blaze.
The three major fires, named by authorities, include:
A-Rock, burning on 17,000 acres with 1,200 firefighters working. It is 45 percent contained, and full containment is projected for 6 p.m. Friday.
Steamboat, burning 4,000 acres, with 1,238 firefighters. Containment is 60 percent, with full containment estimated for 6 p.m. Thursday.
T-Grove 4, covering 650 acres, with 300 firefighters. It is 30 percent contained, with full containment expected at 8 p.m. Thursday.
Yosemite Superintendent Michael Finley, citing concern for the safety of residents and visitors even after the fires are extinguished, said he expects to announce Wednesday night when the park might reopen.
"There's more to opening than just having the smoke and fire out," he said.
Visitors today saw small fires burning throughout the park and along the state Route 140, which enters the park. Smoke appeared to come from the ground, and trees, gutted by the fire, could be heard falling.
"California fires are the most critical right now," said Arnold Hartigan of the Interagency Fire Center. "We're in the sixth critical drought year in a row for much of the country. It's not going to change until we get wet, snowy winters."