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Wedding bells a casualty of massive Yosemite blaze

A tanker drops retardant on the Rim Fire in this undated United States Forest Service handout photo near Yosemite National Park, California,
A tanker drops retardant on the Rim Fire in this undated United States Forest Service handout photo near Yosemite National Park, California,

By Ronnie Cohen

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Add fairy tale weddings to the list of casualties from the mammoth wildfire blazing in and around Yosemite National Park.

Hawaii couple Katie Sprouse, 33, and Jamil Folio, 36, spent a year making plans to exchange vows near the scenic park, where they were set to tie the knot before 70 relatives and friends on Saturday night - until the blaze started burning.

The so-called Rim Fire left the pair, who live in Maui, and two other couples with wedding dates at the evacuated Evergreen Lodge scrambling to make other arrangements, according to the Hawaii couple and lodge co-owner Lee Zimmerman.

"I had everything planned six months ago," Sprouse, an archeologist, told Reuters. "A week ago Friday, as I was packing to leave, the lodge called me to say it wasn't going to happen."

Fallout from the wildfire, the fifth largest on record in California after charring an area the size of Kansas City, Missouri, also forced the cancellation of the Strawberry Music Festival, a biannual bluegrass jamboree where Sprouse and Folio met two years ago.

On this holiday weekend, one of Yosemite's busiest periods, thousands of tourists have had to revise their travel plans after the fire crossed into the park and forced road closures at the premier tourist destination.

The fire has ravaged already struggling area businesses.

Proprietors had been counting on a healthy summer season to carry them through the slow winter months, particularly after an outbreak of the potentially deadly rodent-borne hantavirus scared off tourists last year.

Park spokeswoman Kari Cobb said the inferno had burned 6 percent of the landmark's 748,000 acres and forced the closure of 4 of 13 campgrounds.

Some 4 million people visit Yosemite each year, with most going during the peak months of June through August. Some 620,000 normally visit the park in August alone, but due to the fire, attendance has dropped.

"It's not super substantial," Cobb said of the drop, "but it is noticeable."

The park's most popular areas, including Yosemite Valley with the iconic Half Dome and El Capitan rock formations, remain open, Cobb said.

BUSINESSES STRUGGLING

Proprietors who depend on tourism near parts of the park that have been closed off said they were struggling to stay alive.

Chris Loh, 38, who owns the Iron Door Saloon in Groveland, estimated his business had fallen 98 percent, forcing him to lay off 45 employees, most of his workforce.

"Last summer was the hantavirus; the summer before was a control fire that got out of control," he said. "To have multiple years of having our season shut down early is just devastating."

James Nagle, president of the Yosemite Highway 120 Chamber of Commerce, estimated that tourism to the area had dropped by 25 percent. "A lot of the impacted businesses were counting on Labor Day weekend to get them through the winter," he said.

The blaze burned two of five cabins that Eliote Durham manages on the Tuolumne River in the Stanislaus National Forest. It also destroyed a well house, eliminating the water source for the Spinning Wheel Ranch where the vacation rentals are located, she said.

Durham was briefly allowed to go to the ranch, and she took photographs of potholes left when trees burned like candles into the roots.

"We're probably closed for the year," she said. "It looks like a moonscape."

The worst part for recovering businesses, Nagle said, is that when tourists do return, they will see a scorched landscape. "It's just ugly," he said.

Newlyweds Sprouse and Folio will marry in the Butterfly Creek Winery on Saturday in Mariposa, about 30 miles south of their original wedding site, and plan to return next year to the Strawberry Music Festival, where they got engaged last year. They had planned to attend the event this year as part of their wedding celebration.

When the fire forced Camp Mather, the festival's site, to be evacuated, organizers had to postpone the 32nd annual Labor Day bluegrass festival that draws about 5,000 guests.

"I hope everyone has a wonderful weekend," Sprouse posted on a festival Facebook page, "and we will see you all next year at our one-year anniversary!"

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Ken Wills)

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