||This article may require copy editing for grammar, style, cohesion, tone, or spelling. (November 2014)|
Satellite image of the Rim Fire, on August 23, 2013
(The American Fire is also visible to the north)
|Location||Sierra Nevada, California, USA|
|Cost||$127.35 million (2013 USD)|
|Date(s)||August 17, 2013– October 24, 2013|
|Burned area||257,314 acres (104,131 ha)|
|Ignition source||Illegal campfire|
|Buildings destroyed||112, including 11 residences|
The Rim Fire was a wildland fire that was started in a remote canyon in Stanislaus National Forest. This portion of the central Sierra Nevada region occupies Tuolumne and Mariposa counties of California. 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), It is also the largest wildfire on record in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The Rim Fire was fully contained on Thursday, October 24, 2013 after a nine week firefighting battle. The fire was caused by a hunter's illegal fire that went out of control, and it was named for its proximity to the Rim of the World vista point, a scenic overlook on Highway 120 leading up to Yosemite. A total of eleven residences, three commercial buildings, and 98 outbuildings were destroyed in the fire. A total of 10 injuries were also reported from the wildfire but no firefighters were killed during the suppression efforts. Putting out the fire cost more than $127 million. (2013 USD)
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 was not publicly identified until a year later, when two felony and two misdemeanor charges were filed against Keith Matthew Emerald of Columbia, California. The fire had only consumed 40 acres when it was discovered, but it grew to 10,000 acres within 36 hours and 100,000 acres after just four days. In two days, in mid-August, the fire consumed nearly 90,000 acres. The rapid rate of fire spread is attributed to five factors: a record-breaking drought; a heat wave; past fire suppression efforts that altered the normal fire regime; population growth which complicates suppression tactics; and Forest Service budget cuts. It burned into back-country areas of Yosemite National Park. The park remained open, and though Yosemite Valley was never in danger, the fire did consume 78,895 acres of park land. Heavy smoke was,at times, a factor.
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.
Atmospheric instability, hot temperatures and a severe drought fueled the fire, making it difficult to combat. Also contributing to the fire was a pre-1980s policy of suppressing small natural fires, which altered the natural fire regime. The lack of those low intensity surface fires created nearly a century's worth of fuel on the ground, resulting in a massive forest fire that left large swaths of the forest severely burned, including the overstory. 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 stated that this extent of destruction was "unprecedented" for historic Sierra Nevada fires. On Thursday, October 24, 2013, the Rim Fire was 100% contained.
Closures and evacuations
Forest closures were put into effect and evacuation advisories were issued by Tuolumne and Mariposa counties. Several thousand people temporarily left their homes as a result of the evacuations. 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.
Smoke from the fire caused unhealthy air conditions in Reno, Nevada and the Lake Tahoe area during the first week of the fire, forcing the cancellation of several outdoor events. School children were sent home due to smoky conditions as well. From Yosemite to the San Joaquin Valley, air quality reached unhealthy levels several times according to the National Weather Service.
Berkeley Camp, a family camp operated by the city of Berkeley and established in 1922, was burned to the ground. 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, 2014. 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 of the threat to local communities and its proximity to Yosemite National Park. Though Giant Sequoia trees are very fire-tolerant, and in fact need fire to reproduce, concerns rose as the intense fire approached 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, but the sprinklers were then removed and careful low-intensity burns were successfully used instead. 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 severely impacted 6 of 14 grazing allotments located within the fire perimeter 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.
The 3 Forests Interpretive Association published three newsletters, highlighting various Rim Fire Recovery topics.
Closed areas during recovery
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 enter 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. The closure of the burn area was also criticized by the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors, among other reasons for causing the cancellation of grazing allotments by local ranchers.
In late 2013, a plan was considered for salvage logging approximately 30,000 acres (120 km2) of the Rim Fire. The snag patch forest, or habitat of forest-killed trees, is home to a wide variety of wildlife, some of which are management indicator species. Some scientists and conservation groups opposed the logging plan, contending that the removal of trees from this area would not only harm such species as Black Backed Woodpeckers, but could affect other cavity nesting birds, that follow in the wake of the woodpeckers. Other species of wildlife could also be at risk, such as frogs that inhabit forested streams and deer, for example. 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 August 28, 2014, Stanislaus Forest supervisor Susan Skalski signed a Record of Decision approving the Rim Fire Recovery Project. The plan allows logging within a 52 square miles (130 km2) area, including interior portions of the burned area and along roadways. Its goals are to "Salvage dead trees to capture economic value; remove roadside hazard trees to protect public and worker safety; reduce fuels for future forest resiliency; improve roads for hydrologic function; and, enhance wildlife habitat. A portion of the money captured from the salvage logging is ear-marked for ecological restoration projects following the fire." The plan attempted to balance competing interests, an essential task for a multiple use agency such as the U.S. Forest Service. Instead of the 660 million board feet of salvage wood that could have been logged, the final plan dropped the estimated salvage removal to 210 million board feet. The new plan leaves vast areas untouched as snag habitat for Black-Backed Woodpeckers and other snag-dependent wildlife. Instead of building permanent new roads, the plan eliminated permanent new road construction and reduced the mileage of temporary roads as part of the salvage logging plan. The Forest Service acknowledged that the final plan reflected a collaboration between the timber industry and various environmental groups, who had joined together to attempt to find consensus regarding the recovery process. Skalski cited that collaborative agreement from previously polarized groups as being influential in her decision to significantly reduce the amount of salvage material. Forestry officials praised the plan, but some environmental groups denounced it. The excess fuel is anticipated to be sold to the timber industry for removal.
The purpose of salvage logging was to remove an enormous fuel load from the forest floor. As trees fall, they contribute to the potential for having future catastrophic fires. Severe soil damage, which can cause hydrophobicity, occurs when a fire lingers in an area for a long time such as beneath burning logs. The phenomenon is known as residence time. The longer a fire lingers over a given area and heats it up, the greater the potential damage to soils. Hydrophobic or "water-fearing" soils increase the chance for erosion and runoff. Sedimentation flows, flooding and increased sedimentation can result when soils are badly damaged. Structurally damaged trees also pose a threat to visitors.
An interdisciplinary team of 17 research specialists began working on the reforestation plan for the fire in the fall of 2014. Stakeholders are encouraged to review the draft proposal and provide feedback at a workshop that is scheduled for December 16, 2014. A Record of Decision (ROD) will follow by the summer of 2015. That ROD will outline the area to be replanted.
In the meantime, a great deal of research work is going on behind the scenes, on Stanislaus National Forest. Mega-fires, like the Rim Fire, are increasing across the west. And though no one likes to have an explosive fire occur in their backyard, they do provide an unprecedented opportunity to learn. Since this is a growing concern nationwide, Forest Officials are studying the bigger picture. In addition to reforestation and meadow restoration, seven major studies will occur.
Natural resources have become a focal point following the Rim Fire. A rare and compelling opportunity to investigate a number of key management questions that have challenged land managers for decades is now available to Forest Management. The response of the ecosystem after such a large and intense fire raises many critical questions: How do different wildlife species respond? How do riparian systems recover and what happens to our supply of drinking water in the interim? What are the ecological effects of salvage logging? How can we control hill slope erosion and thus prevent downslope flooding? How can restoration efforts meet present-day needs while setting the course for desired forest conditions decades into the future?
Section D of the EIS, which was posted in August, 2014, outlines the various proposed research projects aimed at restoring the landscape affected by the Rim Fire.
Scientists at the Pacific Southwest Research Station (PSW) developed this research agenda in collaboration with the Stanislaus National Forest and research partners at multiple universities and other government agencies. Though they can be implemented as stand-alone projects, they were designed as a holistic research approach, including integrated sampling design, treatment, data collection, and analysis elements.
- List of California wildfires
- 2014 California wildfires
- 2013 California wildfires
- Rush Fire
- Meadow Fire
- King Fire
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