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Firefighters make progress on Yosemite wildfire

Nearly a third of the huge forest fire burning in and around Yosemite National Park has been contained and some small communities in the mountainous area are no longer under evacuation advisories, but smoke in the San Joaquin Valley cities is becoming a problem.

Nearly a third of the blaze was contained as a thick smoke layer persists in San Joaquin Valley

The Rim Fire glows in the hills behind Tuolumne City northwest of Yosemite National Park, California. Nearly a third of the huge forest fire burning in and around the park has been contained. (David McNew/Reuters)

Nearly a third of the huge forest fire burning in and around Yosemite National Park has been contained and some small communities in the mountainous area are no longer under evacuation advisories, but smoke descending down into San Joaquin Valley cities is becoming a problem.

Nearly 5,000 firefighters had been battling the blaze, but in a sign of progress some are expected to be released to go home, said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said in Fresno, Calif.

"We continue to gain the upper hand, but there's still a lot of work to be done," he said.

The two-week-old blaze burning in the Sierra Nevada northeast of Fresno has scorched nearly 500 square kilometres of brush, oaks and pine, making it the largest U.S. wildfire to date this year and the fifth-largest wildfire in modern California records. Containment was estimated at 32 per cent.

Winds had been blowing dense smoke plumes northeast into the Lake Tahoe area and Nevada but a shift Friday brought them west down to the San Joaquin Valley floor.

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Regional air pollution control authorities issued a health caution for San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, Fresno and Tulare counties. Residents who see or smell smoke were urged to stay inside, especially people with heart of lung problems, older adults and children.

Evacuation advisories were lifted Thursday in Tuolumne City, Soulsbyville and Willow Springs but remained in place for other communities, and evacuations were still mandatory along the fire's southeastern edge.

About 120 square kilometres of the fire are inside Yosemite but at some distance from the national park's major attractions, including glacially carved Yosemite Valley's granite monoliths and towering waterfalls.

Park officials expect about 3,000 cars a day to pass through gates during the long Labour Day holiday weekend instead of the nearly 5,000 that might typically show. The fire has caused some people to cancel reservations in the park but those vacancies have been quickly filled, officials said.

"Valley campgrounds are still full and skies in Yosemite Valley are crystal clear," said park spokeswoman Kari Cobb.

A six-kilometre stretch of State Route 120, one of three western entrances into Yosemite, remained closed, hurting tourism-dependent businesses in communities along the route.

Costs reached $47 million US, including firefighters from 41 states and the District of Columbia and significant aviation resources including helicopters, a DC-10 jumbo jet and military aircraft equipped with the Modular Airborne FireFighting System. Aircraft have dropped 6.4 million litres of retardant and 5.3 million litres of water.

The fire started Aug. 17 and its cause remains under investigation. It is expected to keep burning long after it is fully contained, and recovery will be extensive. Some 7,000 damaged trees next to power lines will need to be removed by utility crews and 800 guardrail posts will need to be replaced on Route 120, a fire fact sheet said.