Rim fire at Yosemite grows as federal wildfire budget is depleted

After more than tripling in size Thursday, the Rim Fire on the edge of Yosemite National Park continued to grow and has now burned at least 165 square miles. The blaze is only 2 percent contained. Hundreds of residences in the area have been evacuated, although authorities say that, for now, the fire is not a threat to the picturesque Yosemite Valley:

Within the park the blaze is burning in a remote area around Lake Eleanor, and is not threatening Yosemite Valley, Bjorn Fredrickson, a fire spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said.

While Yosemite remains open, the wildfire caused the closure of a 4-mile stretch of State Route 120, one of three entrances into Yosemite on the west side, devastating areas that rely on tourism.

“There is no immediate threat to the valley at this time,” Fredrickson said.

Officials also have advised voluntary evacuations of more than a thousand other homes, several organized camps and at least two campgrounds. More homes, businesses and hotels are threatened in nearby Groveland, a community of 600 about five miles from the fire and 25 miles from the entrance of Yosemite. . . .

“This fire, it’s killing our financial picture,” said Corinna Loh, whose family owns the still-open Iron Door Saloon and Grill in Groveland. “This is our high season and it has gone to nothing; we’re really hurting.”

Loh said most of her employees have left town. And the family’s Spinning Wheel Ranch, where they rent cabins to tourists, has also been evacuated because it’s directly in the line of the fire. Two outbuildings have burned at the ranch, Loh said, and she still has no word on whether the house and cabins survived.

“We’re all just standing on eggshells, waiting,” Loh said.

Associated Press

For the second consecutive year, the federal government has depleted its wildfire budget before the end of the season. The U.S. Forest Service will have to reduce funding for other programs to continue fighting fires, which have become more common and intense:

More than 31,900 fires have burned 3 million acres in the United States this year, according to the Forest Service.

Compared with other fire seasons in the past decade, that is mild. Last year produced the second-worst season on record: 67,700 fires burned 9.3 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In 2006, more than 96,300 fires burned 9.8 million acres.

A total burn of 5 million acres was once a rarity in fire seasons that ran from June to September before 2001. But since then, the season has expanded from May to October, as a changing climate has brought longer stretches of dryness and drought, providing fires more fuel to burn. . . .

Reducing Forest Service funding affects rural economies, where the agency pays contractors to remove trees and brush, and other operations such as logging.

“I recognize that this direction will have significant effects on the public, whom we serve, and on our many valuable partners,” as well as on the agency’s ability to manage forests, Tidwell said. “I regret that we have to take this action and fully understand that it only increases costs and reduces efficiency.”

As of Monday, the Forest Service had spent $967 million to pay for firefighters and the equipment that supports them. That included more than $200 million in the congressional Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement supplemental account known as FLAME.

That left only $50 million to control at least 40 fires burning hundreds of thousands of acres in Idaho, Oregon, California, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Montana and other states. President Obama was briefed on fire-control efforts this week, and nearly 18,000 personnel are fighting fires.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Thursday declared a state of emergency for a wildfire near Yosemite National Park that has burned more than 84 square miles and is only 2 percent contained.

Darryl Fears

Brad Plumer discusses a few of the reasons why wildfires continue to worsen:

Climate change has heated up and dried out the region, making forests more flammable. Modern logging practices and fire-suppression techniques over the past century have also made forests more susceptible to truly gigantic blazes.

What’s more, the number of people living in fire-prone areas has grown dramatically: Some 250,000 new residents have settled in Colorado’s “red zone” over the past two decades, for instance. Not only does that increase the odds of a fire starting in the first place (say, from smokers or motor-vehicle ignition), but it increases the cost of suppression.

And there’s reason to think the situation will keep worsening. A study in 2012 by a team of researchers at the University of California at Berkeley looked at 16 different climate models and concluded that wildfire activity was likely to become much more common in regions such as the Western United States if humans keep pumping carbon into the atmosphere and the world keeps warming.

So far, however, the federal government has been fairly slow in acknowledging these changes. The U.S. Forest Service, for its part, has proposed new forestry practices to reduce the risk of fires, including a greater use of smaller prescribed fires and “mechanical thinning” to clear out the tangled overgrowth in many forests. Yet these measures tend to be expensive — the price tag to treat 4 million acres comes to about $1 billion — and the Forest Service is already struggling to come up with funds as is.

Brad Plumer

For past coverage of fires burning elsewhere in the Western states, continue reading here. For the latest official information about the Rim fire, visit this page.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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