SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The huge Sierra Nevada wildfire and its smoke plume have caused some fearful tourists to opt out of plans for the last big travel weekend of the summer, but most appear intent to go through with vacations to destinations such as Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe.
Those who keep their hard-to-get Labor Day lodging reservations in Yosemite will enjoy a pleasant surprise: stunning views of the towering granite icons Half Dome and El Capitan with less of the usual holiday congestion.
The park has seen some reservation cancellations and some nearby mountain communities have had a serious drop-off in business due to the 311-square-mile Rim Fire, which was 33 percent contained late Thursday. More than 20,000 acres of the fire are along the northern edge of the 750,000-acre national park.
But 20 miles upwind in Yosemite Valley, the sky is clear and not even the scent of smoke is in the air.
Park officials expect about 3,000 cars a day to pass through gates this weekend instead of the nearly 5,000 that might typically show on the holiday. Most of the missing will be day tourists, not folks who have waited months and even years for a campsite along the Merced River or a room at the historic Ahwahnee Lodge.
"We've had minimal cancellations, and when we do we fill them immediately," said park spokesman Scott Gediman. "The campsites are full and there are plenty of people, but because of the publicity we're slower."
It's a familiar pattern of panic, cancellation and rebooking in the rugged national park that has been shaped by all manner of disaster. In years past, when boulders tumbling from 3,000-foot granite monoliths have sent tourists scrambling, or when a mouse-borne illness killed tent cabin guests, cancellations poured in.
But the park never has enough lodging for the 4 million tourists who visit annually, so vacant rooms rarely go unfilled for long.
That's not the case in nearby Groveland, a scenic Gold Rush community along a road that carries 2.2 million cars into the park every year. Early on, fire tore along Highway 120, forcing its closure and cutting off the town's lifeblood.
Since then, the historic hamlet has been the dateline on scores of ominous news stories describing the inferno that has long since chewed its way north. The notoriety has taken a toll.
"I laid off all my girls" Wednesday, said Laura Jensen, owner of the Firefall Coffee Roasting Co. "This has totally drained us. It's like winter when we slow down and take care of the locals, but this should be our busiest time of the year."
The Iron Door Saloon, which calls itself the oldest in California, also laid off employees this week, as did the Hotel Charlotte, a 1920s boutique hotel on Main Street.
"I've had $20,000 worth of cancellations in the past few days," said Doug Edwards, who owns the hotel with his wife, Jen. "It's fear-driven. People don't want to drive on a road that looks like Hiroshima or Nagasaki."
Making matters worse for Groveland was Thursday's fire-forced cancellation of the Strawberry Music Festival, which draws 20,000 bluegrass lovers to town every Labor Day weekend.
"We're coming into the crescendo of our season," Edwards said. "Our hotel should be completely full."
The impact is being felt as far north as Lake Tahoe, where thick smoke settled this week in the alpine basin that draws outdoor enthusiast from around the world, affecting everything from hotel reservations to bicycle rentals.
The sky was clear Thursday, but tourists had yet to come back.
"It has dropped off drastically the past week," said Travis McCoy of Camp Richardson Mountain Sports Center on the lake's south shore. His usual rental income of up to $3,000 daily has fallen to less than $500.
Some hotels and motels at South Lake Tahoe were experiencing as much as a 10 percent to 20 percent drop in business, with less of an impact at larger hotel-casino properties, said Carol Chaplin, executive director Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority. But she said there were signs of improvement as the holiday weekend neared.
"We've got blue skies. We've got the lake back. It's the best it has been in a week," she said.
Harrah's Lake Tahoe fielded some weekend cancelations, but not an unusually large number, spokesman John Packer said Thursday.
"It's a vast improvement this morning — just a huge improvement — particularly compared to Tuesday when it was one of the thicker days," said Packer, who noted that 6,000 tickets have been sold for a Friday night outdoor concert by Brad Paisley.
Air quality also showed some improvement along the Eastern Sierra just east of Lake Tahoe and in Reno, Nev.
At least 31 wildfires are burning in eight Western states, and only two are contained.
The Rim Fire started Aug. 17 and quickly became the sixth-largest California wildfire on record. Its progression slowed earlier this week but it will burn for months.