It seems as if every wildfire the United States this season is bigger than the previous one, except for the small break we enjoyed at midsummer. Last night, the size of the Rim Fire, which now overlaps the scenic backcountry of Yosemite National Park, exceeded the acreage of last week's "beast" blaze near Sun City, Idaho.
The Rim Fire has only been with us for the past eight days. By this morning, it had grown to 133,980 acres. According to Claudine Wong of Oakland's KTVU Channel 2 News, that's the size of Chicago. The Rim Fire has also passed the Beaver Creek Fire in suppression and containment cost, by about $1 million... and counting. It currently threatens huge swaths of wilderness and 4,500 structures.
"The Rim Fire may work out to be one of the largest fires in a long time," the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection tweeted yesterday. "It is burning fast and hot." (The organization presides over 31 million acres of California's privately owned wildlands.) People have been displaced in this fire, stores have been shut down, and basic supplies are needed, according to updates on CalFire's facebook page.
Fire expands overnight
As the sun came up this morning, the temperature in the area was almost 60 degrees, and the humidity a welcome 58%. However, "stinger" southwest winds blew strong at 20 mph. The sun rose blood-red in nearby Reno and Carson City, Nevada, where residents could see neither tall buildings nor mountains, according to one observer. California smoke choked the valleys.
This morning's first federal report states that the fast-moving fire "remained fairly active overnight in most all divisions. Increased activity developed on the eastern edge of the fire with very active burning inclusive of rapid rates of spread." This blaze is torching the treetops and spotting (jumping long-range into previously unburned locations). The emergency information site also reported that since Saturday morning, "the Rim incident is expected to continue to exhibit very large fire growth due to extremely dry fuels and inaccessible terrain. Rapid fire growth and extreme fire behavior are hampering suppression efforts."
Pine, oaks, and brush are fueling it. Heat is so intense in places that heavy fuels are igniting easily and being completely consumed. Ten percent of the fire now extends into a remote corner of Yosemite National Park around Lake Eleanor, about 20 miles from the three major tourist attractions. The park remains open, but officials there have already made some closures and evacuation orders.
According to a morning tweet from Jerry McGowan's California Interagency Incident Management Team 1, 49 crews, 12 helicopters, 339 engines, 46 dozers, and 30 water tenders are now battling this fire. Fixed wing aircraft (MAFFS and VLAT DC-10 air tankers) play a key role in prepping locations in front of the fires spreading eastward and along the California Highway 108 corridor, a two-hour scenic drive that runs through the Sierra Nevada Mountains north of the park. The number of personnel involved, 2,647, already exceeds the staff of the Beaver Creek, Idaho, fire by several hundred, putting the Rim Fire human resources expended at or near the top of 2013 fires so far.
Inaccessibility by road, difficult terrain, and unsafe conditions hinder both crews and equipment. On the fire's western side, firefighters have made "significant progress" with constructing and securing lines and are already mopping up in some spots. However, officials are concerned that because of the high winds and potential for long-range spotting, the fire may be able to advance beyond retardant lines laid down by air tankers and spread west into the communities of Tuolumne City, Twain Harte, and Long Barn. "Tuolumne City looks like a war zone, with all the emergency vehicles... lining the streets downtown by the pool and memorial hall," posted a resident. As well as protecting the park, major effort focuses on holding the fire east of the North Fork of the Tuolumne River.
Infrastructure threat to San Francisco
To the east, where the national park and the nearly 100-year-old Hetch Hetchy reservoir lie, advances beyond retardant lines also pose a threat. The Hetch Hetchy watershed supplies most of San Francisco with both water from the reservoir and hydroelectric power from the dam. Containment may become critical here. The huge fire puts many miles of overland transmission lines to the coast at risk.
Award-winning science writer Sandy Dechert covers environmental, health, and energy policy and issues. She has reported extensively on climate change, extreme weather disasters, including superstorm Sandy, the 2012-2013 drought, and the massive summer wildfires of the past decade. She also detailed events and policy at last fall's 18th UN climate change summit meeting in Doha, Qatar.
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