The Rim Fire as of this morning was 23 percent contained, up from 20 percent Tuesday morning. More than 4,000 people — firefighters and support staff from across the state and nation — were battling the blaze.
The Rim Fire is the largest active wildfire in the United States right now, taking in nearly 300 square-miles, or an area as large as all of New York City.
The fire is the sixth largest in California history.
Firefighting operations on the Rim Fire’s western flank Tuesday entailed airdrops of retardant and water, bulldozing fire lines, and setting backburns south of Duckwall Mountain, in the Hunter Creek area.
Firefighters secured a line around Paper Cabin Ridge, tying together a containment line between the Pine Mountain Lake and Tuolumne City areas.
“This was a significant battle for these guys,” said Forest Service spokesman Jerry Snyder.
In the south, where the fire threatens several homes in Mariposa County and some features in Yosemite National Park, like the Tuolumne and Merced groves of sequoia trees, crews bulldozed a fireline along Old Yosemite Road, extending from Pilot Ridge to the Yosemite National Park boundary.
Mandatory evacuation orders south of Highway 120, in the Scotts Ridge area, remained in effect today.
In Tuolumne County, communities on both sides of North Tuolumne Road, and everything on the south side of Highway 108 between Soulsbyville and Pinecrest, are under an evacuation advisory.
An evacuation order remains in effect for about 16 homes in the Graham Ranch area off Clements Road in Groveland.
“Advisories” urge people to leave but are not mandatory, as “orders” are. Refusing to leave an area under an evacuation order is a misdemeanor in California. People staying in such areas also may not receive public safety assistance if endangered.
The potential mandatory evacuation of threatened Highway 108 and North Tuolumne Road subdivisions has been discussed by authorities but has not been called for, Sheriff’s Office spokesman Scott Johnson said this morning.
He confirmed rumors that the Sheriff’s Office yesterday has requested more support from out-of-county law enforcement agencies as part of a “pre-planning” exercise.
“We were pre-planning in case that was needed. … I don’t want to alarm the citizens. There was nothing going on that we were in danger of upping that. The sheriff just wants to err on the side of caution.”
Snyder said he thought a mandatory evacuation would be unnecessary because the firefighting strategy is working.
“He’s doing some prudent preparation work,” Snyder said of Sheriff Jim Mele. “Nothing is imminent.”
Today, to protect the communities south of 108 and along North Tuolumne Road, fire crews will focus on building fire lines and setting backburns. They could also go through populated areas and burn back growth on lots covered in fire “fuels” — like grass and shrubs, according to Johnson, who urged residents to not be alarmed.
“Contingency lines” are also being created to the north to protect the Tuolumne City, Twain Harte and Long Barn areas.
Fire crews Tuesday conducted some burning operations ahead of the fire’s northern and northwestern flank in an attempt to nudge it eastward toward the Emigrant Wilderness, where dense conifer forest gives way to granite faces that will hopefully slow its progress, fire officials said.
“They’ve been working around the clock and through the night,” said Johnny Miller, a Cal Fire spokesman. “There’s a lot of crews, a lot of dozers and a lot of structure defense” going on along those lines.
Large backburn operations are planned at the fire’s south end.
Road closed in Yosemite
In Yosemite, the Tioga Road will be off-limits to drivers between Crane Flat and White Wolf beginning today and probably through Labor Day or longer. Park officials said on Tuesday that the closure is needed while fire crews clear brush and vegetation as part of “suppression activities” along the road.
Closing the road, which connects the popular Yosemite Valley to the park’s high country to the north, means visitors will only be able to access scenic Tuolumne Meadows from the park’s eastern gate through Tioga Pass. It also adds another popular feature in the northern part of the park that is either closed or restricted over the holiday weekend, with the Hetch Hetchy area, multiple campgrounds on the Tioga Road and both the Tuolumne and Merced groves of giant sequoia closed for fire or fire protection activities.
If conditions allow, crews on the south end of the fire will conduct intentional burns from Hetch Hetchy south to Tioga Road and from Highway 120 south to Pilot Peak to limit its spread in the area.
Fire officials estimate 41,621 acres had burned in the park’s northwestern area as of Tuesday afternoon, park spokesman Scott Gediman said. The most active areas included Lake Eleanor near the park boundary and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which supplies power and water to the city of San Francisco. City officials stated as of Tuesday afternoon that the water quality had not yet seen major impacts from the fire.
At the park entrance on Tuesday, a crew worked on clearing brush out ahead of the fire. A slow-moving finger of the fire burned along Highway 120 west of the entrance, though a plume of smoke and pyrocumulous cloud towered over the road to the northeast out of the Tuolumne River canyon.
To the west, swaths of land along Highway 120 had been stripped of all vegetation by the fire that raged through days before. Called “moonscapes” by fire personnel on the scene, only blackened dirt remained with the occasional skeleton of a burned tree or shrub sticking out of the ground. Stumps still smoldered and smoke clung to the bare land, which still radiated heat in some areas.
Yet some stretches were affected less, with only the underbrush burned out or even untouched by the fire altogether. In the coming weeks, the Forest Service will send teams of scientists into the burned area to record how much of the fire area was burned out completely like in the moonscapes, which areas received a healthier burn and which areas the fire spared. The information will be used to help shape a recovery plan for the forest land.
“It’s obviously going to be very hard to take,” Miller said of the harder hit swaths of land. “When it’s in there crowning … all the way to the top, that’s damage.”
Arrived in Tuolumne
The more the fire grows, the more people it draws to Tuolumne County to both fight and document it. The responder count passed 4,000 Tuesday afternoon, according to the Forest Service, with personnel from around the state and even outside of it joining the fight. Miller himself was deployed out of the Riverside area, and others on the scene at the base camp off Cherry Lake Road came from as far away as New Mexico and Massachusetts.
“Almost every fire department in California has some type of resource on this fire,” said Miller.
Members of the media are also descending on the communities of Groveland and Tuolumne as the Rim Fire continues to grab national headlines. Multiple businesses in Groveland, starved for customers with Highway 120 closed indefinitely, have reported their customer base to be now largely made up of reporters, photographers and videographers.
The response team has brought in myriad public information officers from around the country to handle the media inquiries and share what information they have. Stories of media members driving down restricted backcountry roads to get a better shot of the flames circulated around the base camp Tuesday.
In response, the operation camp is now holding multiple tours a day of the burned and burning area for television and print media teams eager for shots of the flames. Tours are limited to seven cars per tour after one on Tuesday turned into a virtual caravan of a dozen or so cars and satellite trucks.
“Anytime it threatens Yosemite National Park, and it’s a fire this big in California … You’re going to have national news going out ,” Miller said.