YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — From Sentinel Bridge over the Merced River, the screams of Steller's jays and the sight of Half Dome's granite face in the distance were the only familiar signs of a summer Sunday morning in Yosemite Valley.
No aroma of frying bacon drifted down river from packed campgrounds. No traffic snarled on the bridge--in fact, not a single car passed. No buses or trucks were heard off behind the trees. There was only the river's whisper and the insistent jays, bolder than usual after a forced withdrawal from food from humans.
"This is the way it should be," a visitor said softly, her eyes on a meadow where a family of mule deer grazed on breakfast.
At noon today, this natural paradise will revert to downtown Vacationland, U.S.A., when Yosemite Valley is again thrown open to tourists and campers, ending one of the most unusual 10 days in the history of the storied valley.
As many as 15,000 vacationers are expected to flood in when the National Park Service lifts the order that evacuated Yosemite Valley due to nearby wildfires. The fires never threatened the valley, but they filled it with dirty smoke and endangered the access roads.
The smoke is mostly gone--thanks to a Sunday afternoon thundershower that doused the valley--and the roads are ready to open. On Sunday, those who could basked in the last day of peace.
"I had never seen this place before," said firefighter Paul Derby, one of 3,200 men and women brought in to protect the park. "I can't imagine how different it is with 15,000 people here."
Derby was lunching on barbecued hot dogs and hamburgers on the lawn of the Ahwahnee Hotel at a picnic thrown by Yosemite Park & Curry Co., the firm that runs lodgings and other concessions in the park. "Thank you, I hope you enjoy your rest," Ed Hardy, Curry's president, told the crowd of several hundred firefighters and employees of the company and the National Park Service.
For many park employees, this weekend was their first time off since the fires erupted Aug. 7.
"We need to give people time to go home, take a little rest, before they greet the public again," said Chris Cruz, a park ranger. He not only worked long days and nights for the last 10 days but also saw his exercise regimen destroyed.
"This has really messed up my triathlon training," Cruz said.
With the valley's roads empty of tourists, Sunday was a day for locals to resume their running and take to the bike paths.
"It's great having the valley to yourself," ranger Mallory Smith said. "Everybody wants to go out and bike ride, take advantage of it."
When the public returns today, they will find Yosemite Valley the same as before the closure, the park's first forced evacuation. (Floods led to a voluntary evacuation during the Easter season in 1983.)
The most visible sign of the fires is along the entrance roads. On the road from Wawona to Yosemite Valley, whole stands of burned trees have been cut and the logs removed. The logging was necessary for public safety, Park Supt. Michael V. Finley said.
On the road in from El Portal, the most popular entrance, the slopes above are scorched and some rocks and debris still could fall onto the pavement, rangers said.
But chief naturalist Len McKenzie said he expects no lasting damage to the park's wildlife. "This won't affect the ecosystem of Yosemite very much," McKenzie said. "The fires only touched a small portion of the park."
Rather, naturalists say, the fire could help restore areas of the park to the natural conditions that existed before man decided to fight nearly every fire that broke out.
In some Yosemite forests, firs and incense cedars had begun to fill in the spaces between the native stands of Ponderosa and sugar pines. The new trees, which thrive in shade, blocked sunlight needed to nourish the pine seedlings on the forest floor. Without fires to restore the natural balance, the cedars and firs would begin to outnumber the pines.
Cones on the giant Sequoia trees also are opened by fire, so in that way the flames help to regenerate the forest. Naturalists also say next spring may bring an impressive display of wildflowers because the fire serves to germinate several types of plants.
The lightning that set off the fires had formed above the Sierra Nevada and pummeled Yosemite on Aug. 7. At least 15 strikes set off fires scattered across the park. Another 13 small fires already were burning in the park.
Winds the next day blew the worst of the fires into conflagrations that fed on the chaparral at lower elevations and on forests where no fires had thinned out the underbrush in decades.
In all, about 23,000 acres burned and the village of Foresta, a small settlement within the park, was virtually destroyed. There were no serious injuries or deaths.
Today's opening of the valley will mean the entire park is accessible again except for the Big Oak Flat Road, which connects Yosemite Valley with the Tioga Road over the Sierras, and Glacier Point Road. They will remain closed indefinitely along with nearby campgrounds.