A raging wildfire continued burning out of control in the Sierra on Saturday, threatening thousands of woodland homes near Yosemite National Park and making life miserable for residents and firefighters, who dug in for a lengthy battle.
With hot, dry winds gusting through the area, authorities said late Saturday that the fast-moving Rim Fire has burned more than 202 square miles. While the fire grew only slightly from the day before, officials cautioned that it is still highly unpredictable.
"You've got a lot of open line and a lot of potential for that fire to go in multiple directions," said Cal Fire battalion Chief Julie Hutchison. Authorities said that crews had contained only 7 percent of the perimeter of a fire that wasalready larger than the city of San Jose.
More than 2,600 firefighters are battling the blaze, which started Aug. 17 and has destroyed at least 23 homes and other structures, while threatening 4,500 more. .The cause of the fire is still unknown.
"It's a very challenging fire, so we're all hunkered down for the fight," Hutchison said. "We know it's going to be awhile. We're going to have to monitor the weather and be prepared to adapt to whatever it throws at us."
Temperatures remained in the 80s on Saturday as firefighters confronted dense underbrush and steep hillsides. Similar conditions were expected on Sunday, although National Weather Service meteorologist James Brotherton said the low relative humidity could start to improve Monday as a stream of moist air moves up from Southern California.
"We do have a 20 percent chance of thunderstorms in the Yosemite area on Monday evening and Tuesday," he added. "It's not a huge possibility, but definitely there is a chance."
The fire's expanding northern edge was the biggest concern on Saturday, as flames threatened to spread toward the towns of Sonora and Twain Harte along Highway 108.
Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said Saturday night that more strong winds were expected on Sunday, which could push the fire closer to those residential areas and deeper into the national park.
While authorities lifted an evacuation order for the gated summer community of Pine Mountain Lake, near Highway 120, residents were still advised to clear out of several settlements to the north around Highway 108, including Tuolumne City and Ponderosa Hills, where homes are scattered throughout the woods.
"It's continuing to make a run toward the¿ north," Hutchison said. Although no new evacuations were ordered, she said the fire was expanding in "more developed areas."
For many in those areas, the big question Saturday was "where the lines are drawn and who should evacuate. People are anxious," said Greg Falken, who runs a web development firm in Sonora. He said the fire had come within five miles of his house and the air was "extremely smoky. It's pretty uncomfortable."
Local residents also traded rumors on Facebook about "suspicious"-looking men who claimed to be fire officials and ordered homeowners to evacuate, in what some feared was a scheme to steal valuables from abandoned homes. But authorities told residents at a community meeting on Saturday that Tuolumne County sheriff's deputies and California Highway Patrol officers are patrolling the area and had seen no signs of thefts or burglaries.
Residents who attended a meeting at Sierra Bible Church, outside Sonora, were told it could be a week before firefighters get the blaze under control, Falken said.
On the fire's southeastern edge, meanwhile, authorities said a remote section of Yosemite National Park was still burning on Saturday, although the blaze stayed clear of Yosemite Valley and other popular areas. While smoke filled the sky just 50 miles away, Yosemite Valley remained clear at midday, and visitors enjoyed the usual breathtaking views of Half Dome and El Capitan.
Even so, park rangers decided not to take any chances with two historic groves of giant sequoia trees near Crane Flat on the western side of the park. They cleared brush and set water sprinklers to protect about three dozen trees in the Tuolumne and Merced groves.
"All of the plants and trees in Yosemite are important, but the giant sequoias are incredibly important both for what they are and as symbols of the National Park System," park ranger Scott Gediman told The Associated Press. "We're not looking at them as any kind of immediate threat, but we're taking precautions."
A four-mile section of Highway 120 west of the park entrance remained closed on Saturday, which meant the usual summer tourists were nowhere to be seen in mountain communities like Groveland.
"It's a ghost town here," reported Eric Edner, a bartender at the historic Iron Door Saloon, which sits alongside the highway in Groveland.
The saloon was one of few local businesses that remained open Saturday. Others were closed because there were no tourists, or because their owners were busy packing belongings or taking other precautions at their homes outside town.
"They say we're going to be OK, but it's all up to the wind," Edner said. Only half-joking, he added: "If the wind shifts, we're all doomed."
State authorities said Saturday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has agreed to reimburse California agencies for 75 percent of the cost of fighting the blaze, which had reached $7.8 million as of Saturday.
Gov. Jerry Brown had previously declared a state of emergency for areas affected by the fire and for the city of San Francisco, after the fire forced the closure of hydroelectric power stations in the Sierra that serve the San Francisco Bay Area.
Meanwhile, another fire erupted Saturday in an area of the Sierra foothills northeast of Sacramento, where it destroyed one home and threatened 80 more in the historic gold-mining community of Georgetown.
Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022.