As Rim Fire scorches Yosemite, Forest Service cuts restoration funding

 

It started small enough, on Aug. 17 – a 200-acre blaze burning towards a place called Jawbone Ridge from a north-facing slope in the rugged Clavey River canyon, west of California’s Yosemite National Park. The area was isolated, and no structures were immediately threatened.

By the 19th, local news sites were reporting 2,500 acres burned with evacuations advised for some neighboring communities. By the 22nd, the fire had exploded to more than 53,000 acres, then it doubled in size the following day as it roared into Yosemite itself, making national headlines.

A video shot from a Channel Islands Air National Guard plane Aug. 22 shows a towering mushroom cloud of smoke leaning all the way to the horizon, lit gold by flame and low angle sun and casting a dark shadow across forested hills. The pilots point out El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall off to the right, then more gravely observe how impressive the fire looks. As they bank towards the blaze, one says, “Wow… that’s kind of creepy,” then, as they close in to drop a load of fire retardant, with awe, “that is unreal.”

The word is apt for the dramatic flag of smoke and flame unfurling before the pilots’ eyes. And it certainly fits as I write this Monday afternoon, with the Rim Fire’s footprint now at nearly 150,000 acres, at least 23 structures destroyed, various evacuations in effect, 3,678 people involved with fighting the blaze, more than $20 million spent, and smoke billowing across the state line into Reno. And despite some progress towards containment (15 percent at last glance), Inciweb predicts continued “very large fire growth due to extremely dry fuels, strong winds and inaccessible terrain. Rapid fire growth and extreme fire behavior are hampering suppression efforts.”

"This fire is burning unlike anything we've seen in this area historically," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Ashley Taylor told the Los Angeles Times. In the neighboring community of Groveland, the Times reported, people gathered in the middle of the two-lane highway to watch the smoke rise. Nearly all the businesses in town were closed due to the fire, save for the Iron Door Saloon, in operation since 1852, where, “on Friday afternoon, every bar stool was taken. Maps showing the perimeter of the fire were laid out like place mats. People jabbed their fingers at the maps, swapping updates: ‘His shed is gone. But the house is still there.’ ”

But the damage has indirectly reached all the way to San Francisco, nearly 200 miles away. The fire is burning towards the city’s drinking water in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and has already disrupted its supply of hydroelectricity, reports the San Francisco Chronicle:

Two of three power production plants downriver from the reservoir had to shut down before the fire swept through, prompting the city to rely on reciprocal agreements with other utilities and to spend about $600,000 buying supplemental power to make up the shortfall... One of the closed plants was still too dangerous to reach, while crews assessed the damage on the other Sunday afternoon and hoped to have repairs completed Monday. It will not be brought online until transmission lines in the fire zone can be inspected.

So far, though, “Despite ash falling like snowflakes on the reservoir and a thick haze of smoke limiting visibility to 100 feet, the quality of the water (itself) is still good,” reports the Associated Press.

The news of the blaze comes as the U.S. Forest Service grapples with paying for firefighting efforts across the nation in a tight budget year. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than $1 billion has been spent so far on suppression efforts in 2013 (last year’s tab was $1.9 billion). And for the first time since 2008, on Aug. 20 the NIFC raised the nation’s fire preparedness to level 5, meaning that the vast majority of firefighting resources are already committed to blazes and that additional help may be needed from the National Guard and others.

Just a few days before, U.S. Department of Agriculture Chief Tom Tidwell had ordered an immediate Forest Service spending freeze for restoration programs, employee travel, and other personnel costs to help funnel an additional $600 million into the agency’s suppression account, which had been bled down to a mere $50 million, about half of what’s typically needed to cover a single week at Level 5, reports E&E News (sub required). Such borrowing has happened six other times in the last decade, totaling $2.7 billion. Of that Congress eventually restored $2.3 billion, “but not without disruptions to important agency programs” – many of them the kind that could help lessen fire risks in the future. The FLAME Act of 2009 was supposed to help head off that dynamic by creating a reserve fund for firefighting, but it doesn’t appear to be working, perhaps because of fluctuating appropriations.

Meanwhile, Tidwell also announced last week that, to meet the terms of the federal sequester, the Forest Service will withhold $18 million in Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act funds for habitat and restoration work, some of which could also potentially make ecosystems more resilient and resistant to megafires in the long run. Reports the Associated Press:

Oregon stands to lose the most in the move, with nearly $4 million in reductions, (leaving) the state with about $3.4 million. California would lose nearly $2.2 million, leaving it with about $1 million. Idaho is set to lose $1.7 million, Montana nearly $1.3 million and Alaska, about $930,000 – nearly half (its) allotment.

"This is a mess, as forecast," Chris Topik, who directs the Nature Conservancy's Restoring America's Forests program, told E&ENews in response to the spending freeze. "It shows that we need to get serious about investing in the restoration work that reduces fire risk. We need to get serious about a new way of funding suppression.”

Sarah Gilman is High Country News’ associate editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • ASSISTANT TOWN ATTORNEY
    Town of Jackson, Wyoming, $66,700 - $88,000 DOQ, full benefits. Law Degree Required. Rental housing options available. For a complete job description and to apply,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...