California Burning: North State
The Rim Fire grabbed headlines and attention like no other wildfire in California.
It burned into one of California’s most beloved national parks, Yosemite. A year later, its scars still show, not just on the land but on the people who watched it burn.
Jerry Baker: “It was burning so dramatically here it became obvious that no human was going to stop this fire. It was in my mind obviously hopeless.”
Jerry Baker of Groveland walks to where he watched the Rim Fire burn.
He saw it jump the Tuolumne River and rage up the canyon toward a Groveland camp he owns. He says flames were so high they created a “wall of red” right in front of him.
Baker: “What I just didn’t realize was the velocity that fire can create, I was watching this hill burn and the flames were over here, and a tree over there would burst into flames just spontaneously.”
Baker thought he was prepared. He has defensible space and the buildings on his land have sprinkler systems. But what he witnessed gave him pause.
Baker: “The fact that the fires over there and you’ve cleared all the ground 100 feet away from it doesn’t mean too much when you have trees exploding 100 yards away from each other from the shear heat and the rain of embers coming down on it.”
Ultimately retardant dumped from a plane helped save his camp.
Baker: “We are now at this bend where you can see some of the high severity.”
Research scientist Malcolm North with the US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station walks to an area scorched by the Rim Fire. He says a perfect storm of conditions made the fire severe.
Malcolm North: “98 degrees in the afternoon, the humidity was five or six percent, and most importantly the winds were blowing 45 miles per hour and gusting up to 65 to 70 miles an hour and even the best fire fighting forces in the world, there’s no way in hell you can contain a fire under those type of conditions.”
North says decades of fire suppression created a forest choked with trees and brush. Timber plantations planted after a previous fire also helped fuel the flames.
North: “Those plantations are really prone to getting incinerated if not vaporized in a wildfire.”
In 1911, the US Forest Service surveyed a 15,000 acre area in the Stanislaus National Forest, which later burned in the Rim fire. The survey found about 25 trees per acre. UC Berkeley Fire Scientist Scott Stephens went back to the same area just before the Rim Fire.
Scott Stephens: “We found in the same places, we saw tree densities of 220 to 230 trees per acre above six inches, so at least a tenfold increase. Today, you go out there and I have to say, it’s wall-to-wall trees.”
Wall-to-wall trees are a familiar picture for many property owners in the Sierra Nevada. Chris Khan runs the Old Oak Ranch Conference Center in Sonora. For the last several months, he’s worked to remove the more than 40 tons of brush and trees he says make the campus a danger zone.
Chris Kahns: “I think the Rim Fire really opened everybody’s eyes to how dangerous things are and how much debris and material that’s on the ground.”
The property sits at the top of a canyon and has limited access for fire trucks.
Kahns: “We’re basically an accident waiting to happen right now, if a fire were to start down below it would just come up, rush through.”
Khan is working with his local Fire Safe Council. The councils provide federal funds to communities to help make them fire safe. Glenn Gottschal with the Highway 108 Fire Safe Council says not all homeowners are as aware of the increased threat as they should be.
Glenn Gottschal: “I think they have to learn to live with fire, because it’s not a matter of if we’re going to have a fire in this area, it’s just when, and whether or not we can be ready for it.”
“Did you build this? Yes, this is the Rim Fire lookout.”
Since the Rim Fire, Jerry Baker has built an observation deck at his camp in Groveland. It overlooks the canyon where trees once stood. It’s there as a reminder of the damage mega-fires can cause.
Baker: “It is a broad environmental disaster when something like this happens, and that’s not just a disaster for us that want to look at the trees, it’s a disaster for everybody that lives in the state and the country.”
Historically, small fires from lightning strikes sculpted the forests, removing smaller trees and brush that could act as fuel. But scientists say until fire is consistently returned to the forest, even a small spark in the wrong place has the potential to become another Rim Fire. I’m Amy Quinton.
This story was produced by Capital Public Radio