NEW: The Rim Fire, which has burned nearly 200,000 acres, is 32% contained
"It looked like a thunderhead cloud, but it was smoke," hiker says of fire's smoke
Blaze has cost more than $39 million to date
Forest Service chief says firefighting will continue for weeks
It was a rare bright spot on an otherwise hazy, smoke-filled horizon.
As firefighters worked to get a grip on one of the largest wildfires in California’s history, an evacuation advisory was lifted Thursday for residents in Tuolumne City, a picturesque community threatened by the blaze.
Known as the Rim Fire, the conflagration has charred nearly 200,000 acres, cost the state more than $39 million to date and is threatening 5,500 structures, of which 4,500 are residences.
Because of the approaching flames, officials have shut down electricity generators, and San Francisco – more than 120 miles to the west – is temporarily getting power from elsewhere.
While the Yosemite Conservancy says the Rim Fire has consumed tens of thousands of acres inside Yosemite National Park, it has so far had little or no direct impact on Yosemite Valley, a popular spot for tourists and home to many of the park’s iconic attractions, including the El Capitan rock formation.
Firefighters hope to keep it that way. Nearly 5,000 people have been assigned to tackling the blaze.
“This is going to be a tough fire,” said Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service. “It’s going to continue for a few more weeks.”
‘It looked like a thunderhead cloud, but it was smoke’
The blaze has created challenges not only for utility providers, but also for local firefighters, who fill in for state and federal fire teams.
That group included people such as David Hermanson and his friends.
They were on a 10-day trek through the wilderness, just four guys and six llamas. Expecting to commune with nature, they instead faced its sheer, raw power when their hike was cut short by the huge wildfire ravaging northern California.
Hermanson, a 30-year-old artist and air conditioner repairman from the San Diego area, knows Yosemite National Park like the back of his hand.
“Me and my dad have been hiking Yosemite every year since I was seven,” he said.
Stoked to be back in the park again, Hermanson and three of his buddies loaded up the llamas and embarked August 20 on what was to have been a 60-mile hike from Leavitt Meadows to Lake Eleanor.
The group was at Dorothy Lake – about halfway into their trip – when clouds started to roll in. At least that’s what they seemed to be.
“It looked like a thunderhead cloud, but it was smoke,” Hermanson said. “It was just amazing. It looked surreal.”
Time to turn around
Hermanson used a satellite phone to call his dad, who kept the group apprised as the wildfire gobbled up acres by the thousands.
“It was pretty bad in the evening,” Hermanson said. “You couldn’t see the other side of the lake, the visibility was maybe 100 yards.”
Dad said it was time to turn around. The fire was spreading to the end of the trail.
“We didn’t feel endangered,” a disappointed Hermanson said. “We were just engulfed with smoke. It seemed like the smoke got worse as it progressed.”
‘A lot of work to be done’
Authorities say the Rim Fire started on August 17. The cause is under investigation.
“There’s a lot of concern, and there’s a lot of work to be done,” Forest Service spokesman Lee Bentley said.
Firefighters have been able to build fire lines in several locations, officials say.
More than 20 helicopters and air tankers were aiding the efforts.
Herman says the group’s decision to abort their hike was a good one.
The rendezvous truck they had left at the end of the trail was nothing by a burnt shell after the fire roared through Lake Eleanor.
The group made it out safely on Monday. Hermanson’s dad provided the ride home for the crew.
And the llamas?
“They were sneezing a lot. I think they may have been bothered by the smoke.”
CNN’s Dana Ford, Gary Tuchman and David Simpson contributed to this report.