The Rim Fire on the northern side of Yosemite National Park in California continued to grow, but firefighters were able to make significant progress against the blaze for the first time since it began 10 days ago. The fire has blackened about 280 square miles and is 20 percent contained. What ignited the flames is unknown. They are burning near several mountain communities, as well as the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and the famous Yosemite Valley. While the fire is not currently threatening the valley and most of the park remains open to visitors, firefighters are working to protect flora and fauna there:
Park officials cleared brush and set sprinklers on two groves of giant sequoias that were less than 10 miles away from the fire’s front lines, said park spokesman Scott Gediman. While sequoias have a chemical in their bark to help them resist fire, they can be damaged when flames move through slowly with such intense heat. . . .
Meanwhile, biologists with the Forest Service are studying the effect on wildlife. Much of the area that has burned is part of the state’s winter-range deer habitat. Biologist Crispin Holland said most of the large deer herds would still be well above the fire danger.
Biologists discovered stranded Western pond turtles on national forest land near the edge of Yosemite. Their marshy meadow had burned, and the surviving creatures were huddled in the middle of the expanse in what little water remained.
“We’re hoping to deliver some water to those turtles,” Holland said. “We might also drag some brush in to give them cover.”
Wildlife officials were also trying to monitor at least four bald eagle nests in the fire-stricken area.
Officials are worried about the sequoias because of the fire’s unusual intensity:
The fire is burning hotter and faster than any in modern Sierra Nevada history, firefighters say. Officials say it is the California wildfire they have warned about for years, as modern firefighting techniques have snuffed out forest fires, allowing fuel to build up on the mountain floor.
“This is it. This is the big one,” Yosemite Fire Chief Kelly Martin said. . . .
The ancient trees have withstood many fires over the centuries.
The fear is that this fire, with so much unnatural fuel sending flames higher, could get to the top of the trees and kill them. Wuchner said they had sprinklers dampening the tops of the sequoias and had wrapped all nearby structures in fireproof material. They do not use fire retardant in the national park. When there are lightning fires within the park’s boundaries, officials let them burn, unless they are threatening communities.
“When it comes to fighting the fire within the park,” Wuchner said, “what we’re banking on is all the fires that came before.”
Fires in the Western states are more destructive than in the past, for a number of reasons:
Climate change has heated up and dried out the region, making forests more flammable. Certain forest management and fire-suppression techniques over the past century have also made forests more susceptible to truly gigantic blazes.
But there’s another key factor driving up costs: 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 can that increase the odds of a fire starting in the first place, but more crucially, it increases the cost of suppression, as firefighters focus on protecting nearby homes.
As the Rim Fire keeps burning, the federal government has already exhausted its dedicated funds for fighting wildfires. It is the second consecutive year that the budget has been depleted in the middle of the season.