The Rim Fire, the third largest fire in California recorded history, started Aug. 17 in the Stanislaus National Forest. It quickly spread to nearby Yosemite National Park totaling more than 250,000 acres or roughly 395 square miles at the printing of this story. Many neighboring communities in Tuolumne, Calaveras and Mariposa counties were severely affected by this wildfire that has left lasting damage to the region’s ecology and economy.
In the beginning, much of Yosemite National Park and Yosemite Valley were protected from the fire and smoke that severely polluted areas north of the park’s boundary, but a wind shift over Labor Day weekend changed everything.
Coincidence or not, the conditions in Yosemite Valley worsened almost immediately after a back-burning effort began near Crane Flat inside the park and thousands of visitors fled the park on what was to be one of the busiest weekends of the summer season. The air quality inside Yosemite Valley has improved dramatically since then, but visitors continue to stay away from one of the nation’s top national parks as the economy of the region has taken a serious downturn. This decrease in tourism has impacted all the gateway communities surrounding the popular park.
The devastation of the Rim Fire cannot be measured only in dollars from expenditures – now almost $100 million – to fight it. The fire also destroyed private and commercial structures, devalued real estate and created large-scale revenue losses for many businesses inside of Yosemite and its gateway communities. This natural disaster’s most extreme impact was on the forest itself, including the area’s wildlife as animals suffered severe stress, destruction of habitat and loss of life.
Many ecologists predict the impacts from this fire will be felt for decades and most agree, with changing climate conditions, fires like the Rim Fire will become more commonplace without proactive measures that promote healthy forests. The forests of the Sierra Nevada remain wholly unhealthy due to overgrowth that has been encouraged by a fire suppression policy for the greater part of the last century. Old-growth forests contain trees that can typically withstand the heat of a natural wildfire. There is a reason that giant sequoias can live 3,000 years without human intervention. Unfortunately, when westerners began managing the forests, fire suppression was the main focus of their efforts. This suppression has allowed aggressive growth of many conifers that now overcrowd the sequoia groves and pose a greater threat to their sustainability. Since about 1970, resource managers realized this error and further understood that many of the repercussions of suppression caused severe vegetation accumulation that led to the circumstances leading to the Rim Fire. The Forest Service has learned how to more effectively manage the nearly 40,000 square miles of the Sierra Nevada in the past few decades, but it is fighting an uphill battle. Projects have been created to thin large areas of the national parks and forests, but remaining fuel loads and congressional budget cuts have minimized their effectiveness.
Unfortunately, not many trees are left standing in extreme fire incidents, which means severe loss of habitat for the area’s wildlife. Animals that were able to escape the flames have been traumatized and those less fortunate perished. There are reports of distressed black bears suffering from burns, while some have left the forest and have appeared near residential areas. Another major concern is the effect of this fire on endangered great grey owls (Strix nebulosa) that inhabited the area that was in the heart of the burn. This could be a major loss to this area that was seeing a resurgence in population of the predatory bird. All other wildlife, including foxes, fishers and many other species, will also suffer from devastating losses.
The impact on the economy
A large percentage of the economy of the Central Sierra is driven by tourism and many area businesses generate the majority of their revenues during a summer period between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The Labor Day weekend is a crucial time for most area businesses to wind down their summer season before making preparations for the following spring. The aggressive nature of the Rim Fire and the smoke- filled air left in its wake essentially shuttered hundreds of local establishments during the final three weeks of summer, leaving traditionally bustling towns barren for this time period. It had been a growing trend for savvy travelers who have discovered this region during quieter months of September and October. Unfortunately, a vast majority of those potential visitors have canceled reservations and selected alternative arrangements due to fears of unhealthy air quality.
The Rim Fire swept through Groveland and Buck Meadows, damaging their economies for the foreseeable future. Fire swept onto Highway 120 forcing its closure connecting the towns to the Big Oak Flat entrance of Yosemite National Park. A large commercial property with cabins just outside Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was saved, but another camp succumbed to the flames. Hotels, inns and cabins had extremely high cancelation rates and the trickle-down effect caused fewer people to walk the streets, dine at area eateries and visit quaint shops in Groveland – a town at Yosemite’s doorstep.
The damage was also felt inside Yosemite as the Tioga Road closure left visitors stranded on the eastern side of the park with a 200 mile detour just to reach Yosemite Valley. Many trails, lakes and campsites were inaccessible or unsafe to visit. Lodging establishments refunded travelers who were forced to leave the area and popular recreation activities such as guided hiking, backpacking, river rafting, fishing and horseback riding were all canceled by several outfitters in and around Yosemite National Park. Even as the fire has reached 80 percent containment, tourists are steering away from the region for fear of the lingering smoke.
Tuolumne was another danger zone where residents were forced to flee their homes. Many people could not work and regional schools were canceled for more than a week. Tuolumne Road was closed to nonresidents for days and many businesses, including Black Oak Casino, were evacuated.
Many other towns in Tuolumne, Calaveras and Mariposa counties were affected as businesses recorded record losses and many Labor Day events were canceled. Other California communities were distressed to lesser degrees, but it’s worth mentioning that thick smoke covered areas north of the fire all the way through the Tahoe region and could also be seen from points as far away as Idaho. In sum, there are not many business owners in the Sierra Nevada who were not impacted by this devastating event.
In the coming months, many will weigh in on solutions to prevent future conflagrations in this area with a focus on resource management. A patient approach is needed and the expected knee-jerk reactions that ignore environmental protections from some who have the loudest voices in Washington, D.C., should be ignored. Thinning of the forests will be a viable solution that can be agreed upon by all who wish to protect this watershed, but it also poses many difficult questions including how to manage the most challenging areas of the range. The catalyst for the rapidly spreading blaze was mainly in the inaccessible terrain of the Tuolumne River Canyon called Rim of the World and Jawbone Ridge. Wildfire cycles are difficult to predict and the Sierra is an area that will continue to be problematic. The scope of the U.S. Forest Service and national park changes with updated fire management plans. Concerned citizens would be wise to avoid letting emotions interfere with these agencies’ intended goals to enact policies that offer solutions to maintain a balance of what is good for the environment as well as all stakeholders in these delicate ecosystems. Congress would be wise to move toward appropriating more funds to develop these effective management strategies that promote healthy forests.
There are some positive takeaways from this event, however. The first one is the economic damage would have been much more extreme if the fire occurred earlier in the season. Many enterprises were able to operate for most of the summer without interruption. The other “silver lining” is that many in this area can spend the offseason generating marketing campaigns to attract visitors for what should be a resplendent wildflower season next spring. Yosemite will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2014, so many celebrations have already been planned to attract visitors to the area. Finally, it would be a disservice not to mention the remarkable service of all local, state, federal and visiting personnel from other states who responded to this fire. They answered their call of duty to save lives and protect communities. Their strength helped galvanize many communities and allowed them to already begin the rebuilding process.
John Degrazio lives in Sonora and owns YExplore, an adventure company that operates in Yosemite National Park. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.