Yosemite Rim Fire Explodes To Size ‘Bigger Than Chicago,’ Threatens San Francisco Water Supply

Image by Elias Funez /MCT /Landov @ NPR

The cause of the Yosemite blaze is still unknown, though it began before a series of lightening strikes that started other, smaller, fires. Image by Elias Funez /MCT /Landov @ NPR

Chicago, Illinois is 234 square miles … a big city. When we consider how big that is, imagining vast urban skyscrapers, a winding river, a very great lake, grand parks and huge residential complexes, it’s almost impossible to picture the size and scope of an area that enormous. Now picture that entire area fully engulfed in flames. That’s the situation with the ongoing Yosemite National Park conflagration, called the Rim Fire, which has burned just under 150,000 acres, moving it into a dubious first position as the biggest fire in the Sierra Nevadas since the earliest recorded date on the CalFire list, figured to be the 1930s. And while containment as of Monday is up to 15 percent, winds are cranking up and that’s never good for a fire line.

Speaking of winds, the sheer size of the blaze, aided by extremely dry conditions and the unpredictable movement of fire through the treetops, has created its own weather pattern, making containment all the more challenging. From CBS News:

The high winds and movement of the fire from bone-dry brush on the ground to 100-foot oak and pine treetops have created dire conditions.

“A crown fire is much more difficult to fight,” said Daniel Berlant of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “Our firefighters are on the ground having to spray up.” [… ]

Safety officer Sam Lobese is one of the firefighters taking part in the effort. Asked by CBS News’ Bigad Shaban on how to protect a national treasure such as Yosemite National Park, Lobese said: “You know you go in, you do what you can, make fire lines make fire breaks — whatever it takes. And then you throw in the factor of fire creating its own weather — it just compounds the factor of putting the fire out.”

The fire is the most critical of a dozen burning across California, officials say. More than 12 helicopters and a half-dozen fixed wing tankers are dropping water and retardant from the air, and 2,800 firefighters are on the ground.

“This fire has continued to pose every challenge that there can be on a fire: inaccessible terrain, strong winds, dry conditions. It’s a very difficult firefight,” Berlant said.

It is currently unknown how the fires started, particularly since recorded lightning strikes happened after the blaze began. But beyond the tragic destruction of acres of stunning old growth giant sequoias, and the devastation of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, a beloved family camp with a long, picturesque history, concern is growing as the blaze rumbles toward the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the prime source of the San Francisco Bay area’s pristine drinking water supply:

Despite ash falling like snowflakes on the reservoir and a thick haze of smoke limiting visibility to 100 feet, the quality of the water piped to the city 150 miles away is still good, say officials with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

The city’s hydroelectric power generated by the system has been interrupted by the fire, forcing the utility to spend $600,000 buying power on the open market. [Source]

Given the vastness and unpredictability of the Rim Fire, keeping tabs on evacuation orders and its ever-changing statistics, as well as staying abreast of its containment, has been difficult. To that end, Southern California KPCC, the Los Angeles NPR station, has created an online “Fire Tracker” site, which will update regularly with new information. You can access the site HERE to keep tabs on the fluctuating numbers.

Despite the enormity of the blaze, luckily no deaths have been reported, though, according to the Fire Tracker, there have been two injuries so far. And while there has only been a loss of 23 structures, the number of structures currently threatened is at 4500 … a fluid situation that will be closely monitored.

Iconic Yosemite, pre-fire. Image by Lorraine Devon Wilke @  @LDW.com

Iconic Yosemite, pre-fire. Image by Lorraine Devon Wilke @ @LDW.com

As anyone who’s been to Yosemite knows, this is a stunningly beautiful natural resource unlike any other place on earth. The destruction in progress will be a profound and lasting one, reminding us, once again, of the power of Mother Nature, which, hopefully, is the only thing behind this continuing conflagration.

Here’s the video:

Check in with the Fire Tracker for all updates.