Massive blaze threatens Gold Rush era town near Yosemite National Park

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MARIPOSA — Thousands of firefighters battling a massive blaze encroaching on a small Gold Rush era town frequented by tourists on their way to Yosemite National Park have slowed its progress.

But the five-day blaze in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada was still threatening hundreds of homes, hotels and century-old saloons on Thursday, including a wood courthouse founded in 1854 and touted as the oldest active courthouse west of the Rocky Mountains.

The fire was threatening about 1,500 homes and other buildings, after already destroying 45 structures in the outskirts of Mariposa. It's not clear what type of buildings burned in the wildfire that's scorched 109 square miles (282 square kilometers), the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.

About 15 miles southwest of the park, Mariposa's charming main street has covered sidewalks, and historic wood and brick buildings that now house antique shops, restaurants, pizza parlors and art galleries offers a taste of the Gold Rush days.

The town of 2,000 people located on Highway 140, the main road to Yosemite National Park, normally bustles with visitors but on Thursday ash rained down and heavy smoke darkened the sky. Only fire trucks and other emergency vehicles traveled on the highway and the town's main street.

Carol Dewey, who owns a small bed and breakfast in downtown Mariposa, was one of a few business owners allowed to return to check on their shops in the town under mandatory evacuation.

"The place is like a ghost town," Dewey said. "This fire has really devastated the area, business is just flat."

Dewey, 64, said that in recent years about 30 new shops and wine bars have opened, attracting lots of young tourists but the fire has emptied the place.

"We just hope everything gets back to normal by next week," she said.

More than 3,000 firefighters are battling the blaze that has forced almost 5,000 people from homes in and around a half-dozen small communities. It is 10 percent contained.

The fire got within a half-mile of Mariposa but crews have been able to keep it out of the town by dropping red retardant on the flames burning nearby slopes and using bulldozers and hand crews to build fire brakes, Cal Fire spokesman Jason Motta.

"We saw the fire come over the ridge on the north side of Mariposa and it crested the ridge just at sundown," when it was cooling down, Motta said, adding the lower temperatures helped fire crews stop the wildfire's progress.

"The imminent threat to Mariposa is over but fire crews are maintaining the line to control the threat," he said.

At its closest, the blaze was still about 35 miles (56 kilometers) from the boundary of Yosemite, where campgrounds are open, park spokesman Scott Gediman said.

The fire closed one of several roads into the park during its busy summer season, and rangers warned visitors with respiratory problems to be mindful of the smoky haze over the park's landmark Half Dome rock face, Gediman said.

Yosemite does not appear at risk from the fire, which was moving south, away from the park, Motta said.

Record rain and snowfall in the mountains this winter abruptly ended California's five-year drought. But that has increased the challenge for crews battling flames feeding on dense vegetation.

Statewide, about 6,000 firefighters were battling 17 wildfires, including about 2,200 at the fire near Yosemite.

Gov. Jerry Brown has declared an emergency, bolstering the state's resources to battle the fire.

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Associated Press writer Olga R. Rodriguez reported from San Francisco.

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