Monday, September 2, 2013

Rim Fire updates

I've been spending a lot of time at the superb Inciweb site recently. Why aren't all government web sites like this? Inciweb is just a superb site, with detailed, accurate, exact information, clear descriptions, no fluff.

Of course, the reason I've been on Inciweb is due to the Rim Fire.

I'm sure this isn't the first time you've heard of the Rim Fire, though if you're not from this part of the world you've probably heard it called the "Yosemite Fire". If you're just getting caught up on the Rim Fire, let's start with a few highlights from today's Fact Sheet:

  • Day 16
  • Acreage: 222,777 Square miles: 348.1
  • Largest wildfire in the United States to date in 2013
  • Acreage in Yosemite National Park: 60,214
  • Proportion of the fire burning in Yosemite National Park: 27 percent
  • Proportion of Yosemite National Park within the fire perimeter: 7.9 percent

The commitment to fighting this fire has been mammoth; at this point, I believe that every aerial asset that CalFire possesses has been involved in the effort.

So far, the major human-related loss to the fire has been the legendary Berkeley Family Camp, which was a complete loss:

Very bad news tonight for the thousands of East Bay families who are fans of Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp. It burned down today, according to John Miller, spokesman for the US Forest Service. Owned and operated by the City of Berkeley, the beautiful and popular camp along the Tuolumne River near Yosemite National Park has been around since 1922. But today, it fell victim to the massive Rim Fire

My colleague in the cubicle to the left of me has been taking his family to Berkeley Family Camp for 7 years.

My colleague in the cubicle to the right of me has been taking her family to Berkeley Family Camp for 11 years.

They're still wearing their Family Camp tie-dye T-shirts to work on Fridays, but it's with a much different emotion now.

Thank goodness that that just-as-legendary Camp Mather was saved:

According to Camp Mather officials, the San Francisco Fire Department, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Recreation and Park Department have all had a hand in keeping the core of Camp Mather safe from the fire.

Even though the containment is now 60%, as this morning's status update reminds us, the situation remains critical:

Fire activity continues to be active in the south and southeast with moderate rates of spread and torching. Today winds will be coming from the south southwest with up to 20mph gusts. Fire activity has been slow and moderate in the north end of the fire. Today’s fire weather is extreme. Very active fire and extensive spotting continues to hamper suppression efforts and pose risks to firefighters.

One reason that this fire has a very personal interest to me is that, just exactly a year ago, I was backpacking right in the middle of this fire. It is very emotional to look at my pictures from last year and imagine how much that part of the world has changed in just the last 16 days.

The best map of the fire, I think, is this one. The black line represents the control line. See if you can find Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Note that the south shore of the reservoir is listed as a containment line. Even though the fire is so active that it's leapt over 300 feet at a time to spot and initiate new outbreaks, there's no way that it can go directly across the reservoir.

That is why the burnouts from Hetch Hetchy south to Harden Lake were so critical, and why that was the line that the firefighters fought like crazy to secure. (It's the straight vertical north-south line at the rightmost edge of the fire.) Without that line, the fire would just race up the Tuolumne canyon (known as "the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne"), and they probably couldn't stop it again until it reached Tuolumne Meadows, at which point most of the park would have burned.

The moment of decision came on Thursday night, August 29th, when, after days of waiting for a break in the almost non-stop winds, there came an afternoon of calm, and a forecast of a cool and (relatively) humid evening. That night, as Inciweb dryly puts it:

Firefighters began burning operations south of Hetch Hetchy and along Old Yosemite Road. ... Night crews will continue with burning operations as long as weather conditions allow

So when you go back and read the hourly reports of the fire on Inciweb (or elsewhere) and wonder why there is so much discussion of tiny little Harden lake, well, it wasn't really about Harden Lake, it was about trying to save Yosemite National Park from experiencing what happened to Yellowstone in 1988.

in the summer of 1988, Yellowstone caught fire. The fires, which began in June, continued to burn until November, when winter snows extinguished the last blazes. Over the course of that summer and fall, more than 25,000 firefighters were brought in from around the country.

In the end, the flames scorched about 1.2 million acres across the greater Yellowstone area.

Now, the Rim Fire is still nothing like 1988; as Bill Gabbert reminds us:

On the worst single day, “Black Saturday” on August 20, 1988, tremendous winds pushed fire across more than 150,000 acres.
That's nearly the entire Rim Fire acreage, on a single day.

But if you're trying to understand the Rim Fire, and struggling with the dry and terse information on Inciweb, accurate and exact though it may be, may I recommend that you spend some time with the marvelous document prepared five years ago by the Yellowstone staff for the 20th anniversary of the fires: The Yellowstone Fires of 1988

Since 1988, fires have continued to burn in Yellowstone—more than 85,000 acres as of 2007. According to historic records, that’s to be expected. However, the average number of lightning started fires has been increasing each year since the 1990s. The majority of scientists believe this increase is due, in part, to climate change. They say that, generally, the western United States will experience increasingly intense fires—fires similar to those of 1988.

Humans have a complicated arrangement with our world. What we do matters, and it's often hard to detangle cause from effect.

But Yosemite National Park is perhaps the most beautiful spot on our beautiful planet, and I wish those five thousand hard-working firefighters the very best of luck (and safety) over the next several weeks.

And thank you for cutting that line down to Harden Lake.

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