Fire racing near Yosemite park destroys dozens of structures

An air tanker drops retardant while battling a wildfire near Mariposa, Calif., Wednesday, July 19, 2017. The fire has forced thousands of people from homes in and around a half-dozen small communities, officials said. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Flames from a backfire burn as CalFire crews battle a wildfire near Mariposa, Calif., Tuesday, July 18, 2017. Record rain and snowfall in the mountains this winter was celebrated for bringing California's five-year drought to its knees, but it has turned into a challenge for firefighters battling flames feeding on dense vegetation, officials said. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
These Tuesday, July 18, 2017, webcam photos provided by the Yosemite Conservancy show the monolith known as Half Dome as smoke from the Ditwiler fire swirls into Yosemite Valley, from late morning to early afternoon, in Yosemite National Park, Calif. The Northern California blaze is also threatening powerlines that provide electricity to the park, officials said. The park remained open Wednesday but several roads frequented by tourists were closed. (Webcam by Yosemite Conservancy at yosemiteconservancy.org via AP)
A chimney stands at a burned residence on Yaqui Gulch Road as a wildfire burns near Mariposa, Calif., on Wednesday, July 19, 2017. The fire has forced more than 4,000 people from homes in and around a half-dozen small communities, officials said (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A scorched car rests next to a residence leveled by the Detwiler fire near Mariposa, Calif., on Wednesday, July 19, 2017. A surging wildfire raced through California mountains and foothills west of Yosemite National Park on Wednesday, forcing thousands to flee tiny, Gold Rush-era towns. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
An air tanker drops retardant while battling a wildfire fire near Mariposa, Calif., on Wednesday, July 19, 2017. According to fire officials, the blaze has scorched more than thousands of acres and destroyed multiple structures. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
An air tanker drops retardant while battling a wildfire near Mariposa, Calif., on Wednesday, July 19, 2017. The fire has forced thousands of people from homes in and around a half-dozen small communities, officials said. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A burned structure stands atop a hill on Yaqui Gulch Road as a wildfire burns near Mariposa, Calif., on Wednesday, July 19, 2017. According to fire officials, the blaze has scorched thousands of acres and destroyed multiple structures. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A chimney stands at a burned residence on Yaqui Gulch Road as a wildfire burns near Mariposa, Calif., on Wednesday, July 19, 2017. The fire has forced thousands of people from homes in and around a half-dozen small communities, officials said. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Melted lawn chairs rest outside a residence leveled by the Detwiler fire near Mariposa, Calif., on Wednesday, July 19, 2017. A surging wildfire raced through California mountains and foothills west of Yosemite National Park on Wednesday, forcing thousands to flee tiny, Gold Rush-era towns. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A chimney stands at a burned residence as the Detwiler fire burns near Mariposa, Calif., Wednesday, July 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A trellis rests in front of a Hummingbird Lane residence leveled by the Detwiler fire near Mariposa, Calif., on Wednesday, July 19, 2017. A surging wildfire raced through California mountains and foothills west of Yosemite National Park on Wednesday, forcing thousands to flee tiny, Gold Rush-era towns and wafting smoky haze over the park's landmark Half Dome rock face. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Flames rise behind a vacant house as a firefighter works to halt the Detwiler wildfire near Mariposa, Calif., on Wednesday, July 19, 2017. As wildfires rage throughout the western U.S., one California blaze in the rugged mountains outside of Yosemite National Park forced thousands of nearby residents to flee their homes. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Flames rise behind a vacant house as a firefighter works to halt the Detwiler fire near Mariposa, Calif., on Wednesday, July 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Flames rise behind a vacant house as firefighters work to halt the Detwiler fire near Mariposa, Calif., Wednesday, July 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Flames from a backfire burn above fire trucks as CalFire crews battle the Ditwiler Fire near Mariposa, Calif., on Tuesday, July 18, 2017. Record rain and snowfall in the mountains this winter was celebrated for bringing California's five-year drought to its knees, but it has turned into a challenge for firefighters battling flames feeding on dense vegetation, officials said. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A firefighter sprays water on a back fire while battling the Ditwiler Fire near Mariposa, Calif., on Tuesday, July 18, 2017. Record rain and snowfall in the mountains this winter was celebrated for bringing California's five-year drought to its knees, but it has turned into a challenge for firefighters battling flames feeding on dense vegetation, officials said. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

MARIPOSA, Calif. — A surging wildfire raced through California mountains and foothills west of Yosemite National Park on Wednesday, forcing thousands to flee tiny, Gold Rush-era towns, destroying 29 structures and wafting a smoky haze over the park's landmark Half Dome rock face.

The 4-day-old blaze nearly doubled in size overnight to 75 square miles (194 square kilometers), the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.

At its closest, the blaze was still about 35 miles from the boundary of Yosemite, where campgrounds are open, park spokesman Scott Gediman said. The fire closed one of several roads into the park during its busy summer season, and rangers warned visitors with respiratory problems to be mindful of the haze, Gediman said.

Among park visitors Gediman talked to, "people understand fire is a naturally occurring thing," he said. "Nobody was upset about it."

Yosemite does not appear at risk from the fire, which was moving south Wednesday, away from the park, California fire spokesman Jordan Motta said.

The fire has forced almost 5,000 people from homes in and around a half-dozen small communities, officials said.

Heavy smoke hung in the air over Mariposa, a town of 2,000 with century-old wooden buildings, including what's touted as the oldest active courthouse west of the Rocky Mountains.

The fire was threatening about 1,500 homes and other buildings, after already destroying 29 structures. It's not clear what type of buildings burned. The flames are near Highway 49, a historical route winding its way up California foothills of the western Sierra Nevada dotted with little towns that sprouted along the gold Mother Lode that drew miners to California in the 1800s.

The fire got within a half mile of Mariposa but crews have been able to keep it out of the town, said Cal Fire spokeswoman Katherine Garver.

Tony Munoz, 63, and his wife, Edna Munoz, 59, were ordered out of their home outside Mariposa on Tuesday. They grabbed clothes, medicine and their three dogs and a cat before fleeing.

Driving out on narrow roads clogged by others getting out, "you couldn't even see the sun" in the ash-filled sky, said Tony Munoz, a school custodian.

Downtown Mariposa was empty except for firefighters and other emergency workers. Fierce flames were visible on slopes about a mile away.

Record rain and snowfall in the mountains this winter abruptly ended California's five-year drought. But that has increased the challenge for crews battling flames feeding on dense vegetation.

"There's ample fuel and steep terrain," Cal Fire spokeswoman DeeDee Garcia said. "It makes firefighting difficult."

Statewide, about 6,000 firefighters were battling 17 large wildfires, including about 2,200 at the fire near Yosemite.

Gov. Jerry Brown has declared an emergency, bolstering the state's resources to battle the fire that he said has forced thousands of residents to flee and is expected to continue burning.

In Nevada, firefighters got a handle on a wind-driven wildfire that destroyed four homes and damaged several more. Bureau of Land Management spokesman Greg Deimel said Wednesday that no one was hurt in the fire that broke out in extremely windy conditions just east of Elko.

___

Kristin Bender in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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