Nearly 3,800 firefighters are battling a massive wildfire in the northwestern part of California’s Yosemite National Park. The fire, which started August 17 in a forest west of Yosemite, has burned at least 185,000 acres of land (more than 41,000 of them inside the park). Called the Rim Fire, it is one of the biggest California wildfires on record.
No one yet knows what caused the fire, which is spreading farther east into the forest. Extremely dry weather there has made plants flammable (able to catch fire easily), and high winds have quickly spread the flames. The mountainous, rocky landscape has made battling the wildfire difficult for firefighters. But with the help of water-dropping helicopters, bulldozers, and more than 450 fire engines, firefighters have 20 percent of the fire under control.
“We’re starting to get a little bit of a handle on this [fire],” Lee Bentley, of the U.S. Forest Service, told reporters. “[But] we’re not there yet.”
AN EMERGENCY SITUATION
The fire has affected only about 5.5 percent of the 750,000-acre national park—mostly wilderness areas—but it is still very serious. More than 30 homes and roughly 80 other structures have already been destroyed. About 4,500 additional homes are threatened, most of which have been evacuated. Major roads through Yosemite have been closed.
The Rim Fire is also threatening San Francisco’s water and power supply, causing California Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency for the city. The fire is burning dangerously close to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which supplies water to 2.6 million San Francisco Bay Area residents. Ash has already fallen onto the water’s surface. If the water becomes unsafe to drink, officials say they will tap into a supply of water in some reservoirs near San Francisco.
The fire has also damaged two of the three facilities that supply hydroelectric power (power generated by the force of moving water) to many of San Francisco’s public facilities, such as the airport, hospitals, police stations, and firehouses. The city has been relying on reserve power that’s been stored for emergencies, as well as on power it purchases on the open market.
A PART OF NATURE
The Rim Fire is just one of dozens of large wildfires that have recently raged across the western U.S. because of the season’s drought (an extreme shortage of water) and very dry heat. Firefighters are confident they will soon put out the blaze.
While this wildfire is dangerously large, these fires happen naturally all the time. Yosemite officials are focusing on the fire’s potential positive effects: Wildfires contribute to the overall health of the forest by burning off dead vegetation and controlling plant diseases.
“[The fire is] certainly a serious thing,” says Scott Gediman, a park ranger. “[But] it’s also a part of nature and the wildness of a national park.”