A massive California wildfire that began two weeks ago is still raging, affecting firefighters, residents and tourists in the area.
"Despite firefighters' efforts, the remote Rim Fire burning near and in Yosemite National Park continues to be very active," the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said in a statement Saturday morning. "Overnight, the fire grew nearly 6,000 acres and now has burned a total of 219,277 acres or nearly 343 square miles."
The fire is 35% contained, and is expected to be fully contained by Sept. 20.
"Inaccessible steep terrain and extreme fire behavior" have made suppression efforts difficult, the Incident Information System, which reports fire details, said in a statement. "Continued warmer and drier weather is forecasted for the next several days, which will elevate control concerns and slow burnout progress."
The cause is still under investigation. Yet a local fire official said during an Aug. 23 community meeting that the blaze could have been sparked by marijuana growers, according to the San Jose Mercury News. A video of that meeting is also posted on YouTube.com.
In that meeting, Twain Harte Fire Chief Todd McNeal said the exact cause was unknown, but it was "highly suspect that there might have been some sort of illicit grove, a marijuana-grow-type thing."
"We know it's human-caused," he said. "There was no lightning in the area."
LABOR DAY WEEKEND PLANS AFFECTED
Mandatory resident evacuations continue in the areas near the fire and tourism at Yosemite National Park — which has been minimally affected by the blaze — is expected to be down during this Labor Day weekend.
Approximately 60,246 acres of the fire are inside historic Yosemite National Park, but at some distance from its major attractions. However, smoke is now clouding Yosemite Valley, home to the California park's most popular landmarks, according to Yosemite Park Ranger and spokeswoman Kari Cobb.
"I'm in Yosemite Valley right now, and I cannot see the cliffs around me," Cobb said Saturday. "The wind has shifted and smoke is impacting the entire park. We have been lucky until now."
All the campgrounds in the Valley still were full as of Saturday morning, despite the thick blanket and burning smell that permeated the area, she said.
As a health precaution, visitors were being asked to scale back their outdoor recreation plans and avoid strenuous activities or even stay indoors.
About 8% of the park is inside the fire perimeter.
For this weekend's Labor Day traffic, park officials expect about 4,000 cars a day to pass through the gates, down from the normal 5,000 to 7,000 cars for a typical holiday. Some nearby mountain communities have also had a drop-off in business.
FIREFIGHTERS INCLUDE INMATES
Nearly 5,000 fire personnel are now battling the flames of the Rim Fire. Costs to contain the blaze could reach $47 million.
Since much of the fire is in rough, remote terrain, firefighters are using equipment such as helicopters and air tankers to attack it from above, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
"It is still burning, although we are making progress at the same time," Berlant said.
More than 1.4 million gallons of water have been dropped, as well as more than 1.7 million gallons of fire retardant.
Firefighting assistance has come from 41 states and the District of Columbia. More than 500 California inmates, who have been trained to fight fires, are also working to contain the blaze, Berlant said. These are "low-level," non-violent criminals, he said.
The Rim Fire is the largest U.S. blaze in 2013 and the fifth-largest fire in California history, according to the Incident Information System.
On Saturday morning, a statement from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said it could grow to become the state's fourth-largest-ever fire by that evening.
Across California, more than 8,000 firefighters are currently battling six major wildfires.