About the Yosemite “Rim” fire… and more

Posted on 27 August 2013

UPDATE and a NOTE:

Update: Shortly after I posted this, my reports on highway 120 through the park via the Tuolumne Meadows area  were rendered incorrect/outdated by way of an updated announcement from the park service as follows:

“Beginning at 12:00pm on Wednesday, August 28th, Tuolumne Meadows and the High Sierra will only be accessible via Highway 120 East through Lee Vining.  The Tioga Rd/Hwy 120 East will be temporarily closed between White Wolf Lodge and the Big Oak Flat Rd./Hwy 120 West at Crane Flat; the closure is estimated to be 3 to 4 days.  Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, the High Sierra Camps, and Tuolumne Meadows and Porcupine Flat campgrounds all remain open.”

Basically, this means that you will not be able to use highway 120 as a route across the Sierra until further notice. I’m not surprised – in fact, I’ve been somewhat surprised that the road remained open this long. Apparently the following URL is also a good source of updates from the park: http://www.yosemitepark.com/yosemite-fire-update.aspx

Note: All of which brings me back to my original statement that I don’t have inside information on this fire, and that anyone traveling to the area needs to check official sources for conditions updates. I will likely not update this page as things change, so the information posted here should be regarded as potentially being out of date!

My original post follows…

A few people have asked me for information about the “Rim” fire which started not far from Groveland near highway 120, and which is currently burning along the northwest boundary of Yosemite National Park, generally moving east and north toward the highway 108 area. While I know much of this area fairly well from many years (decades, actually) of visits, I do not have any inside information about the fire itself, nor am I an expert on wildfires. One good source of (limited but objective) information is the Stanislaus National Forest Rim Fire Incident web page. A map on this page is a quite amazing source of information, especially when combined with some familiarity with the area and a reading of various written reports. (The version on the main page seems to be based on Google Maps, and allows you to scroll around and zoom in.) Lots of folks who live and work in the area are sharing updates on the usual social media sites. The Mariposa Gazette is another local news source.

The fire started on August 17 more or less midway between Groveland and the  northwest park entrance and not far off of the highway 120 corridor near the Rim of the World area overlooking the canyon of the Tuolumne River. (Highway 120 is a common route for entry to the park from the west and northwest, and it connects via Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Pass to the east side of the Sierra at the town of Lee Vining.) The spread of the fire at first was somewhat quick, which is no surprise given the extremely dry conditions in the Sierra following a second very dry winter and almost no real precipitation since late 2012. Then, between about August 20 and 23, the fire exploded, expanding  very quickly to cover a huge area generally to the east and north of the starting point, with the fire generally racing northeast but also spreading to the north and south.

Lots of mountain communities were in harm’s way, and a number of them are not yet safe by any means, though the map shows that the rapid spread increase in the fire’s area has slowed greatly during the past couple of days. Judging from the map, the area in which the fire has recently burned into the largest new acreage is north of highway 120 as it heads toward Tioga Pass, sort of in a line between roughly the park entrance and the sad abomination that is the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. With all of the appropriate caveats regarding my lack of inside information or wildfire experience, it seems that a combination of fire suppression efforts and the fact that the fire is burning into rockier areas with less fuel may be slowing the thing. (But you’ll notice that the incident report still describes this as a very dangerous situation.)

We were in the Mariposa area earlier this week for purposes unrelated to the fire. As we drove east across the Central Valley, the smoke/cloud plume of the fire was clearly visible from the west side of the Valley, towering high into the atmosphere much like a developing thunderstorm. Because the prevailing winds have mostly been blowing northeast and east, the air in the Central Valley was actually very clear, and we didn’t encounter any smoke until we were nearly to Mariposa, where we ran into just a bit of light smoky haze. Webcams and written reports suggest that Yosemite Valley has been largely immune to the effects of the fire, but that areas to the north (as far as Lake Tahoe) and east have experienced very thick smoke at times. In the evening of our Mariposa visit we found a high ridge from which we could look toward the fire from a distance, and the scale of the conflagration became a bit clearer. (Note that we did not attempt to get anywhere close to the actual incident, and anyone who is not officially involved in the fire response should stay the heck away!)

The response, from all that I’ve heard, has been heroic, with firefighters and their support personnel coming from great distances in great numbers. Some remarkable video from the planes and helicopters dropping fire-retardant and water on the fire is available all over the web – take a look if you want to get a better idea of what it takes to fight a fire like this. Work is being done to try to protect communities in the line of the fire and the park service is taking steps to minimize damage to historic structures and the Tuolumne and Merced groves of giant sequoias.

The two main questions I’ve gotten are how is this affecting access to the area?, and what is the effect on photography now and in the coming weeks and months? 

Regarding access, a lot of up-to-date  information is available in news reports, though if you are really interested I encourage you to follow more than one source, since there are a lot of wild rumors floating around, and to call ahead if necessary. As I mentioned above, if you can stay away, do – for a bunch of reasons now is not a good time to be in this part of the Sierra, not the least of which is to avoid interfering with or making extra work for the people working on the fire. Highway 120 from the west is closed up to the Crane Flat junction between Big Oak Flat Road leading to Yosemite Valley and Highway 120 (Tioga Pass Road) leading across the Sierra. Access to the park is possible from the  west via route 140 through Mariposa, from the southwest via highway 41 through Oakhurst, and from the east via highway 120 from Lee Vining. The first two are largely unaffected by the fire, but this is not the case with 120. Campgrounds, attractions, lodgings, etc. along the western portion of this road within the park are closed or closing, including certain sequoia groves, several campgrounds between the junction and White Wolf, the White Wolf Lodge, and more.

Regarding the particular concerns of photographers, a few thoughts. Every late summer and early fall, wildfire smoke is a natural part of the scene in the Sierra and especially in the high country. However, it has come earlier this year – I dealt with it a few weeks ago during a big fire in the Mammoth Lakes area – and the dangerous fire season usually extends into mid-October. It is worrisome to contemplate what could happen between now and the arrival of the cooler and wetter months. If you are going to be “up there” doing photography in the next few weeks, you are likely to be dealing with smoke in one way or another. (And don’t forget the access issues, either.) Often the fire smoke is more localized than you might expect and the wind direction can make a huge difference. If you are located downwind of a fire and within its smoke plume, things can be quite nasty – not only may your photography suffer, but you might be concerned for your health. On the other hand, if you are even a short distance outside of the plume or, better yet, in a direction that doesn’t sit downwind from the fire, you might find that there is virtually no effect on you. Some low and sheltered areas can retain the smoke haze longer, especially if the winds drop. On one news report, a fire official was asked, “when will this be out?” He replied, (to paraphrase) ” not until the snow and rain come this winter.” It is true that a fire like this won’t be completely out for a long time. However, it should be controlled before too much longer and the intense crisis of the past week will diminish and turn into more of a mop up and management process. (Of course, by that time there is a good chance that other fires will develop.)

A couple of people asked for a longer term guess about how this will play out – not just the “Rim” fire, but the whole fire season. No one knows, though everyone knows that the Sierra Nevada is at a much greater risk of bad wildfires right now, that the danger increases as the summer season transitions into early fall, and that the typical end of the most dangerous period is still roughly two months away. Some want to know about how the fires might affect this fall’s aspen photography. Again, it is impossible to say right now. The aspen color often really gets going right around the start of October, perhaps peaking a week or two into the month as it works its way down to lower elevations. Last year, also a drought year, the color came a bit earlier than usual, and I photographed at the very beginning of October in a place that would more typically have been in condition perhaps a week or more later. There have been a few reports or suggestions that this year’s color season may also be starting early. It may be too soon to say for certain, though I saw some of the familiar earliest signs earlier this year – things I might look for at the end of August were visible in mid-August. How does that dove-tail with the fire season? The aspen color season can overlap the final weeks of the fire season. If we get lucky, a few beautiful and early Pacific weather fronts might come through and drop moisture and even some light snow and begin the process of tamping down the fire danger. On the other hand, if this is one of those seasons when the precipitation holds off until near the end of October or even November, the risk could continue.

© Copyright 2013 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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