One of the largest wildfires in California’s history has burned through nearly 134,000 acres near Yosemite National Park and, now on its tenth day, is threatening the San Francisco Bay area’s water and power supplies.
As of Sunday, the Rim fire was within a mile of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which provides water to 85 percent of San Francisco’s population and is a source of hydropower for some city buildings, including the airport. So far, officials say the fire hasn’t damaged the reservoir’s water supply, but ash from the fire could make Bay area residents’ water cloudier. But the threats the wildfire poses to the city’s power supply prompted California Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency in San Francisco on Aug. 23. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has already closed two hydroelectric stations that depend on the reservoir, deactivated power lines and stations that are in the fire’s path and has purchased $600,000 worth replacement electricity to ensure the city doesn’t experience a blackout.
The fire, which has already consumed about 225 square miles of forest and is the 14th largest in California’s history, is also threatening Yosemite’s iconic Giant Sequoias. Typically, the trees’ thick bark make them resistant to fire, but the extremely dry and windy conditions in the region are prompting officials to take extra precautions with the ancient trees, including cutting down thick brush around them and setting up sprinkler systems to keep them and the surrounding soil damp.
CREDIT: AP/Jae C. Hong
The fire had burned through 15,000 acres within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park as of Sunday afternoon. Nearly 3,000 firefighters have been called in to battle the blaze, which is threatening thousands of rural homes and buildings. Winds as high as 40 miles an hour and dry, thick brush has fueled the fire, which is so large that it’s visible from space, and has made it difficult to control — as of Monday morning, 15 percent of the fire was contained, up from just 7 percent on Sunday afternoon. The high winds have made it easy for the fire to climb up the 100-foot trees in the area, creating a “crown fire” that can spread quickly and is much more difficult for firefighters to contain than a fire that moves along the forest floor.
CREDIT: AP/Jae C. Hong
“This fire has continued to pose every challenge that there can be on a fire: inaccessible terrain, strong winds, dry conditions. It’s a very difficult firefight,” said Daniel Berlant, an officer at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Berlant also said the size of the fire is allowing it to create its own weather patterns, making it difficult for firefighters to predict which way the blaze could move next.
“As the smoke column builds up it breaks down and collapses inside of itself, sending downdrafts and gusts that can go in any direction,” he said. “There’s a lot of potential for this one to continue to grow.”
The Rim fire rages as the U.S. Forest Service is forced to divert funds from other parts of its budget in order to continue to continue to pay for fighting wildfires. The sequester forced the agency to cut its wildfire budget even as costs of fighting wildfires in the U.S. soar to an average of $3 billion per year.