Satellite image of the Rim Fire, on August 23, 2013
(The American Fire is also visible to the north)
|Location||Sierra Nevada, California, USA|
|Date(s)||August 17, 2013– September 6, 2013|
|Burned area||257,314 acres (104,131 ha)|
|Buildings destroyed||112, including 11 residences|
The Rim Fire was a wildfire in the central Sierra Nevada region, in Tuolumne and Mariposa counties of California in the United States. The fire started on August 17, 2013, during the 2013 California wildfire season. It was the third largest wildfire in California's history, having burned 257,314 acres (402.053 sq mi; 1,041.31 km2), and is the biggest wildfire on record in the Sierra Nevada. The fire was contained on Thursday, October 24, 2013 and fully extinguished on September 6, 2013. The fire was caused by a hunter's illegal fire that went out of control and was named for its proximity to the Rim of the World vista point in the Stanislaus National Forest. Eleven residences, three commercial buildings, and 98 outbuildings were destroyed in the fire.
The fire erupted on August 17, 2013 at 3:25pm in the Stanislaus National Forest east of Groveland when a hunter lost control of an illegal campfire. The hunter has not been publicly identified. Only 40 acres when it was discovered, it grew to 10,000 acres within 36 hours and 100,000 acres after four days. The rapid spread is attributed to five factors: a record-breaking drought, a heat wave, past fire suppression, population growth, and Forest Service budget cuts. It burned into back-country areas of Yosemite National Park. The park remained open, and Yosemite Valley was never in danger, although it was affected by heavy smoke at times.
The blaze was difficult to fight because of inaccessible terrain and erratic winds, forcing firefighters to be reactive instead of proactive. More than 5,000 firefighters – including more than 650 inmates who volunteered as part of California's Conservation Camp initiative – worked to contain the fire, which was described by a Forest Service spokesman as "a real tiger". At one point state officials asked residents to avoid social media, to stop exaggerated claims and rumors from spreading, and debunked a number of circulating stories.
A widespread heat wave and drought conditions helped to spread the fire and make it difficult to combat. Also contributing to the fire was a pre-1980s policy of suppressing small natural fires. The lack of those fires created nearly a century's worth of fuel to burn, resulting in a massive forest fire killing virtually all plant life in its path. Forest officials estimated "that almost 40% of the area inside the fire's boundary is nothing but charred land" - nearly 160 square miles out of the 400 square miles burned. They said this extent of destruction is "unprecedented" for historic Sierra Nevada fires. The extent of the fire, however, allows for new succession of tree species that require post-fire conditions to germinate; species that have not been around for quite some time will begin to appear. On September 6, 2013, a t6:30 PM PDT, the Rim Fire was reported to be 100% contained.
Closures and evacuations
Forest closures were in effect for several areas. Some evacuation advisories were issued by Tuolumne and Mariposa counties. The Tioga Pass Road (Highway 120) was closed for a time. Highways 140 from Merced and 41 from Fresno remained open throughout the fire, providing access to the national park.
Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, a family camp operated by the city of Berkeley and established in 1922, was burned to the ground by the fire. Nearby Camp Tawonga suffered some damage including the loss of three buildings. Camp Mather, operated by the city of San Francisco, suffered minor damage, as did the San Jose Camp run by the city of San Jose. Privately owned Evergreen Lodge was undamaged.
State of emergency and federal funding
California governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for the city of San Francisco on August 23, after the fire caused damage to the power infrastructure serving the Bay Area, causing two out of the existing three hydroelectric power plants to shut down, and threatened the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, the main source of water of San Francisco, providing up to 85% of the city's supply and 2.6 million customers. On August 26, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission moved water away from Hetch Hetchy into downstream reservoirs located in San Mateo and Alameda Counties as a precautionary measure, but did not expect the fire to cause any disruption to the city's water supply. The fire advanced within a mile of Hetch Hetchy by Monday August 26 concerning O'Shaughnessy Dam officials due to ash falling in the water.
The cost of fighting the fire was estimated at $127.35 million as of October 24. The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that it would reimburse the state up to 75% of the eligible costs of fighting the fire through a grant for "managing, mitigating and controlling the fire".
Forest and park issues
The United States Forest Service made it their highest priority fire because it involved Yosemite National Park. Flames threatened the giant sequoias, some of the biggest and oldest living things on Earth.
Wildlife officials had to deal with displaced animals. Park officials set sprinklers to help protect nearby big trees. The Forest Service is studying effects on habitat. Biologists were concerned and watched animals in the burned out areas, including Western pond turtles that congregated in the small amount of water that didn't evaporate and a number of bald eagle nests.
Parts of the National Forest are used for grazing, and there was concern that hundreds of cattle could have been injured or killed. The blaze destroyed 12 of the 36 grazing areas in the forest, and displaced cattle were scattered over a wide area.
The fire also threatened the Stanislaus-Tuolumne Experimental Forest, one of California's main centers for forest fire research located a few miles from the northern edge of the Rim Fire near Pinecrest. The experimental forest was created in the 1920s and has since served as an open-air laboratory to research how the density of vegetation impacts the diffusion of wildfires and the resilience of forests.
In late 2013, a plan was considered for salvage logging of about 30,000 acres of the Rim Fire's destruction. The snag forest habitat, or habitat of forest-killed trees, is home to a wide variety of wildlife species, some endangered. Some scientists and conservation groups opposed the logging plan, contending that the removal of trees from this area would not only harm the generation of endangered species, it would also throw the equilibrium of the area into disarray, as the endangered species play a key role in maintaining the cycles of habitat, food, and energy in the area. However, other environmental groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, endorsed the salvage logging plan as justified and necessary, given the unprecedented and unnatural level of destruction caused by the fire. Eric Holst, senior director of the EDF, said "The Rim Fire has provided an overabundance of dead wood. Removing a responsible proportion of it and sending it to mills to create jobs and net revenue for restoration will not compromise ecological health."
On April 17, 2014, Stanislaus National Forest issued an order closing the majority of the burn area to the public through November 18, 2014, citing safety issues from potential falls of heavily burned trees, rockfalls, and uneven ground. The decision was met with disappointment by morel mushroom hunters who had looked forward to extensive post-fire fruiting of this highly sought-after mushroom. The safety rationale was questioned, as Yosemite National Park (which largely prohibits mushroom collecting) had opened up the burn areas within its boundaries to the public earlier in the month. Some mushroom hunters state they would be willing to sign liability waivers in order to entire the area, but the Forest Service rejected this idea, stating they were ultimately responsible for the safety of those entering the area. Extensive harvesting of morels in the Rim Fire area nevertheless took place in May 2014, in a few cases legally by special permit, and in most cases through illegal harvesting.
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