Rim Fire: Huge California wildfire threatens Yosemite sequoias, park sets up protection (MAP)

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UPDATE: Massive wildfire near Yosemite one of California's worst at 149,780 acres (map)

Click here to view a map of the Rim Fire.

Update 4:18 p.m. Yosemite takes steps to protect sequoias from fire 

As a wildfire rages along the remote northwest edge of Yosemite National Park, officials cleared brush and set sprinklers to protect two groves of giant sequoias.

The iconic trees can resist fire, but dry conditions and heavy brush are forcing park officials to take extra precautions in the Tuolumne and Merced groves. About three dozen of the giant trees are affected.

"All of the plants and trees in Yosemite are important, but the giant sequoias are incredibly important both for what they are and as symbols of the National Park System," said spokesman Scott Gediman.

As seen from the #ISS today: MT @AstroKarenN Wildfires near #Yosemite National Park in N. Calif. Aug. 24. pic.twitter.com/vOXjRpYxtV

— NASA (@NASA) August 24, 2013

The trees grow naturally only on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada and are among the largest and oldest living things on earth.

The Tuolumne and Merced groves in are in the north end of the park near Crane Flat. While the Rim Fire is still some distance away, park employees and trail crews are not taking any chances.

"We're not looking at them as any kind of immediate threat, but we're taking precautions," Gediman said.

More than 5,500 homes are threatened and four were destroyed. Voluntary and mandatory evacuations have been ordered.

The fire has been burning for a week. The cause is under investigation.

The fire held steady overnight at nearly 200 square miles along the park's northern border, but a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says firefighters didn't get their usual reprieve from cooler early morning temperatures Saturday.

"This morning we are starting to see fire activity pick up earlier than it has the last several days," said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. "Typically, it doesn't really heat up until early afternoon. We could continue to see this fire burn very rapidly today."

The Rim Fire started in a remote canyon of the Stanislaus National Forest a week ago and is just 5 percent contained.

The fire has grown so large and is burning dry timber and brush with such ferocity that it has created its own weather pattern, making it difficult to predict in which direction it will move.

"As the smoke column builds up it breaks down and collapses inside of itself, sending downdrafts and gusts that can go in any direction," Berlant said. "There's a lot of potential for this one to continue to grow."

The tourist mecca of Yosemite Valley, the part of the park known around the world for such sights as the Half Dome and El Capitan rock formations and waterfalls, remained open, clear of smoke and free from other signs of the fire that remained about 20 miles away.

More than 2,600 firefighters and a half dozen aircraft are battling the blaze.

The fire is burning toward the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, where San Francisco gets 85 percent of its water and power for municipal buildings, the international airport and San Francisco General Hospital. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency because of the threats.

Officials with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission are running continuous tests on water quality in the reservoir that is the source of the city's famously pure water.

Deputy General Manager Michael Carlin told The Associated Press on Saturday that no problems from falling ash have been detected.

"We've had other fires in the watershed and have procedures in place," he said.

The commission also shut two hydro-electric stations fed by water from the reservoir and cut power to more than 12 miles of lines. The city has been buying power on the open market.

A four-mile stretch of State Route 120, one of three entrances into Yosemite on the west side remains closed. Two other western routes and an eastern route were open.

Previously: After burning for nearly a week on the edges of California's Yosemite National Park, a massive wildfire of nearly 200 square miles (125,620 acres) has now crossed into it. Firefighters have barely begun to contain it, with only 5 percent containment as of Saturday morning, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The Yosemite Valley, the part of the park frequented by tourists and known around the world for such iconic sights as the Half Dome and El Capitan rock formations and Yosemite falls, remained open, clear of smoke and free from other signs of the fire that remained about 20 miles away.

But the blaze was reverberating around the region. It brought a governor's declaration of emergency late Friday for San Francisco 150 miles away because of the threat the fire posed to utility transmission to the city, and caused smoke warnings and event cancellations in Nevada as smoke blew over the Sierra Nevada and across state lines.

And the fire had established at least a foothold in Yosemite, with at least 17 of its 196 square miles burning inside the park's broad borders, in a remote area near Lake Eleanor where backpackers seek summer solace.

Park spokeswoman Kari Cobb said that the park had stopped issuing backcountry permits to backpackers and had warned those who already had them to stay out of the area.

Visit http://t.co/7ui2XJ86DO for Yosemite-specific updates about the Rim Fire. Most of Yosemite is open. #rimfire

— Yosemite National Pk (@YosemiteNPS) August 24, 2013

She emphasized that the skies over Yosemite Valley were "crystal clear," however.

"Right now there are no closures, and no visitor services are being affected in the park," Cobb said. "We just have to take one day at a time."

The blaze did, however, pose a threat to the lines and stations that pipe power to the city of San Francisco, so Gov. Jerry Brown, who had declared an emergency for the fire area earlier in the week, made the unusual move of doing the same for the city across the state.

San Francisco gets 85 percent of its water from the Yosemite-area Hetch Hetchy reservoir that is about 4 miles from the fire, though that had yet to be affected. But it was forced to shut down two of its three hydroelectric power stations in the area.

The city has so far been able to buy power on the open market and use existing supplies, but further disruptions or damage could have an effect, according to city power officials and the governor's statement.

The declaration frees funding and resources to help the city and makes it eligible for more federal funds to help with power shortages and outages or water problems.

The 196-square-mile blaze was 5 percent contained and more than 2,000 firefighters were on the lines.

It continued to grow in several directions, although "most of the fire activity is pushing to the east right into Yosemite," said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In Nevada, the smoke forced officials in several counties to cancel outdoor school activities and issue health advisories, especially for people with respiratory problems.

The fire was threatening about 5,500 residences, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The blaze has destroyed four homes and 12 outbuildings in several different areas.

It closed a 4-mile stretch of State Route 120, one of three entrances into Yosemite on the west side. Two other western routes and an eastern route were open.

Officials issued voluntary evacuation advisories for two new towns — Tuolumne City, population 1,800, and Ponderosa Hills, a community of several hundred — which are about five miles from the fire line, Forest Service spokesman Jerry Snyder said.

A mandatory evacuation order remained in effect for part of Pine Mountain Lake, a summer gated community a few miles from the fire.

"It feels a little bit like a war zone, with helicopters flying overhead, bombers dropping retardant and 10 engine companies stationed on our street," said Ken Codeglia, a retired Pine Mountain Lake resident who decided to stay to protect his house with his own hoses and fire retardant system. "But if the fire gets very hot and firefighters evacuate, I will run with them."

Officials previously advised voluntary evacuations of more than a thousand other homes, several organized camps and at least two campgrounds in the area outside the park's boundary.

More homes, businesses and hotels are threatened in nearby Groveland, a community of 600 about 5 miles from the fire and 25 miles from the entrance of Yosemite.

Usually filled with tourists, the streets are now swarming with firefighters, evacuees and news crews, said Doug Edwards, owner of Hotel Charlotte on Main Street.

"We usually book out six months solid with no vacancies and turn away 30-40 people a night. That's all changed," Edwards said. "All we're getting for the next three weeks is cancellations. It's a huge impact on the community in terms of revenue dollars."

The fire is raging in the same region where a 1987 blaze killed a firefighter, burned hundreds of thousands of acres and forced several thousand people out of their homes.


View Rim Fire in a larger map

 

With contributions by KPCC staff

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