Yosemite fire grows to California’s third biggest ever

LOS ANGELES - The huge wildfire in Yosemite National Park became California's third biggest ever Friday, but officials re-opened a key road into the tourist landmark as firefighters got a grip on it.

The so-called Rim Fire, accidentally started by a hunter last month, has grown to 246,350 acres (385 square miles), much of it within the park visited by millions of tourists every year.

But firefighters now have it 80 per cent contained, and on Friday re-opened Highway 120, the main road into the west of the park used visitors driving across from San Francisco on the California coast.

At one stage two of the four main roads into Yosemite were closed, as over 5,000 firefighters battled the blaze.

Last week smoke drifted into the tourist heart of the park, Yosemite Valley, obscuring views of the world-famous Half Dome and El Capitan rock formations over the Labor Day holiday weekend.

But changing wind patterns and increased humidity helped them get a grip and contain it within the far north of the park.

"Patrol and mop-up will continue to occur along and within the communities that are interior and adjacent to the fire perimeter, including developed areas within Yosemite National Park," said the latest update Friday by the multi-agency Inciweb website.

More than 3,600 firefighters are still working to contain the blaze which broke out on August 17, while aircraft have dropped more than 4 million gallons of water and fire retardant over the last 18 days.

It is now the third largest California wildfire since records began 1932, with an area five times that of Washington DC.

The largest in California history remains the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego County, which destroyed 2,820 buildings and left 14 people dead after ripping through 273,246 acres of land.

On Thursday investigators said they believed the fire "began when a hunter allowed an illegal fire to escape," and dismissed reports that it was sparked by an illegal marijuana farm.

Authorities in California have in recent years faced increasing problems with drug plantations hidden deep in the region's rugged wilderness.

A 2009 fire that burned 90,000 acres in the Los Padres National Forest near Santa Barbara was triggered by a campfire at a marijuana farm.