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4:26 pm
Mon August 26, 2013

Fire Near Yosemite Grows To Nearly 150,000 Acres

Originally published on Tue August 27, 2013 4:30 pm

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel and we begin this hour in California, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, not far from Yosemite National Park. That's where fire crews are starting to make some progress in their fight against the massive Rim Fire that's been burning for nine days now. It has scorched nearly 150,000 acres. Relatively few structures have been lost so far, but thousands of people remain under evacuation orders.

NPR's Nathan Rott is with us from Groveland, California, just down the road from the firefighters' command camp. And Nate, this fire's had a couple of days of explosive growth. Is there now some hope of containing it?

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Well, yeah. This morning, it was 15 percent contained, which is about double the containment they had yesterday, so things are improving. But basically, today, they're just trying to kind of hold the containment they have and improve it where they can. It's important to remember this fire is bigger than Chicago, so they sort of have to pick their battles. They can't be everywhere at once.

I talked to some of the planning chiefs earlier today and they said that in some areas, the fire is just going to kind of peter out on its own when it gets into higher elevation and granite. That's not the case to the northeast of this fire. There are thousands of people and a city in that direction, so that's where most of the efforts and aircraft are being focused right now.

Today, it is a bit cooler here and that's helping a lot. The problem the firefighters have been running into for the last week, when the fire was doubling and tripling in size, is that this fire is so massive and so hot that it's generating its own weather. So, every day you see these big columns of smoke building up tall enough that they can be seen from Fresno or 100 miles away. And then those columns collapse because they can't support their own weight.

And when that happens, you get this huge outflow of air from the collapsing column that sends fire in every direction. If they can avoid those kind of blowouts today, they'll get a lot more of this fire contained.

SIEGEL: Now, Nate, you mentioned a city potentially in harm's way here. There was some worry that this fire could threaten the water and power supplies of San Francisco. In fact, Governor Jerry Brown issued a state of emergency declaration. Is that still an issue?

ROTT: Yeah, it very much is. The fire is still advancing on the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which is what provides the majority of the drinking water for San Francisco and the Bay Area. They're concerned that ash and fallout from the fire could get into that water and contaminate it. But they haven't had any of those problems yet. The other issue that has affected people is that a lot of the electricity that's used in the Bay Area is generated up here.

And two of the three hydroelectric power stations up here have been shut down because of the fire. The utilities commission has said that people shouldn't expect any outages, though. They can get the power from elsewhere if and when it's needed.

SIEGEL: Now, we've also been hearing that two stands of giant sequoias are threatened by this fire. Have crews managed to keep the flames away from those trees?

ROTT: Yeah, so far. I mean, so there are two separate groves of giant sequoias that are threatened. Those are groves that have trees in them that are up to 2,000 years old, so that's a pretty high priority. Firefighters have put in fuel breaks around the trees and are wetting them with sprinkler systems, but you gotta understand that the fire is still about three to five miles away from both of those stands.

The thing that they are concerned about is that when this fire was up and going, like it was most of last week, it was moving at about a mile an hour, so it can cover that ground pretty fast if it gets a head of steam. And it's that sort of fire, one that's kind of moving fast through the canopies that has folks concerned. Sequoias are naturally fireproof, for the most part. Their bark can be 24 inches thick.

So in a lot of ways, they're even fire dependent. I talked to one of the park officials yesterday and he says that fire releases the tree's seeds from their cones and they clear out a lot of the brush, which helps the young sequoias grow. The problem is, is that this is not like a normal fire, a healthy fire. It is destroying everything, even burning the nutrients out of the soil. So if it hits those trees with that sort of intensity, it won't do any good.

SIEGEL: Well, apart from the sequoias, what would be the biggest concern for Yosemite National Park now?

ROTT: Well, the fire's only burned about 15,000 acres of the park, which is pretty small in comparison to the whole lot of it.

The bigger thing is, the fire's burned across highway 120, which has closed the road and the park's bigger attractions, like Half Dome, are off that road so they're nearly inaccessible. You got to remember it's still tourist season here. I talked to the park superintendent earlier today and he said that the park generates about $400 million in revenue for this area every year and, obviously, that's going to take a hit.

SIEGEL: OK. Thanks, Nate.

ROTT: Thanks.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Nathan Rott, who is covering the massive Rim Fire in Groveland, California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.