YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — Wind-blown wildfires sent flames licking to heights of up to 1,000 feet Saturday as they edged to within two miles of a historic grove of giant Sequoias west of Yosemite Valley.
The erratically moving fires also were closing in on a centuries-old habitat of the spotted owl and threatening the evacuated resort community of Yosemite West.
Firefighters boosted their ranks from 850 to more than 1,400 but made little progress in the most fire-ravaged region at the west edge of the park. Forestry officials predicted that it would take at least a week just to contain the largest of more than two dozen fires sparked by electrical storms earlier this week. The park, where 10,000 visitors were evacuated on Friday, is expected to remain closed indefinitely.
More than 15,000 acres have been destroyed. Until Saturday, the fires had kept a good distance from Yosemite's more popular tourist spots, consuming relatively removed forest land and sending only thick, black smoke across the face of Half Dome. However, the Merced Grove--where towering redwood trees are 3,000 years old--is expected to come under attack from the flames in only a day or two.
In preparation, bulldozers raced to clear a fire line around the historic trees. Firefighters also went tree-to-tree digging three-foot trenches around 40 of the oldest sequoias.
Although redwoods are naturally fire resistant, firefighters worried that drought conditions and high winds might damage them if the barriers fail to hold.
"It takes a long time to grow back a 3,000-year-old tree," Yosemite forestry foreman Everett DeMoss said as the fire raged within two miles of the grove. At least 25 of the massive redwoods have diameters of 10 feet or more.
The Merced Grove also contains one of Yosemite's most important historic buildings, a three-room log cabin that firefighters were draping with fireproof blankets.
Forestry officials reported that the fires also had spread west into the Stanislaus National Forest, where stands of 200-year-old timber provide some of the few remaining habitats for the endangered spotted owl.
"With the combination of the steep terrain there, the old-growth timber and the four-year drought, we're pretty concerned," said Janet Buzzini, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service.
Firefighters were more optimistic about the smaller of the main blazes, the so-called Steamboat Fire, which has charred more than 5,000 acres between California 140 and Route 41 at the park's west boundary. By midday Saturday, said Buzzini, the flames covering the north-facing slopes were not threatening to spread.
Nonetheless, officials wary about the chance of a shift in the wind kept a watchful eye on Yosemite West, a community of 80 vacation homes and 24 condominiums near Route 41.
Meanwhile, the community of Foresta--where flames destroyed 66 buildings on Friday--continued to burn. Heat and flames were so intense and the danger of falling trees so great that firefighters could do little more than watch. The toll reached 75 buildings, including 27 private homes.
More-fortunate residents of El Portal, a town of 800 just west of the park, were being allowed to return home to trade tales about the 100-foot wall of flame that bore down the mountainside at them--only to stop short.
Debbie Brossman, a Yosemite Park bartender, was one El Portal inhabitant who refused to evacuate for seven hours on Thursday, even though the fire roared to within yards of her house.
"I was terrified--it sounded like jet engines," she said. "I stuck it out as long as I could. I figured it was going to be a fight to the finish."
One young couple who planned to be married Saturday at Yosemite's chapel--with a reception scheduled to follow at the park's stately Ahwahnee Hotel--found themselves instead exchanging vows in the town of Merced.
Natalie Riggs, 23, of San Bernardino and Ralph Figueroa, 25, of Whittier, frantically tried to contact the 70 invited guests, from as far away as Mexico, to tell them of the change in location. "It's not going to be what we had planned, but we are getting married," the groom said.
Firefighters from around California and the Western states continued to arrive on the scene, but available crews were spread thin by more than 1,300 fires statewide, including a 100,000-plus-acre blaze near Chico and four fires in Humboldt County, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Pat Kaunert said.
For the first time since the 1988 fires that destroyed more than 1 million acres in Yellowstone National Park, fire officials were calling for help from the U.S. Army. Times staff writers Harold Maass and George Ramos also contributed to this story. Hubler reported from Los Angeles and Maass, Ramos and Miller reported from Yosemite.