Earlier this week, when Governor Jerry Brown visited areas of Tuolumne County that had been devastated by the massive Rim Fire, he called the enormous blaze "unexpected," according to a Sacramento TV station. In truth, however, experts say that big fires like the one that has roared through the Sierra Nevada and is threatening two historic groves of old-growth giant redwoods in Yosemite National Park may become common. The reasons are simple: Throughout the 20th century, the US Forest Service purposely suppressed wildfires, thereby allowing decades of thick undergrowth to accumulate in the nation's forests, effectively turning them into giant powder kegs. And then when the federal agency realized its mistake and made plans to thin the underbrush and conduct controlled burns to help prevent gigantic wildfires, it was blocked from doing so because of federal budget cutbacks.
This week, the Los Angeles Times quoted two forestry experts, including UC Berkeley fire scientist Scott Stephens, who said that US Forest Service officials told them that a lack of federal funds had prevented the agency from implementing its plans to thin the understory in Stanislaus National Forest, where the Rim Fire is raging, and conduct small controlled burns there to reduce fuel levels. As a result, the forest is choked with underbrush that is feeding the intensely hot blaze — so hot that it's threatening to engulf giant redwoods that have lived for thousands of years and are normally fire-resistant. "If prescribed burning had been done in many of these areas, it would have been easier to stop [the fire] or it wouldn't have done so much damage," John Buckley, an ex-firefighter for the US Forest Service and head of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, told the Times.
In a natural ecosystem, small fires are common and keep a forest healthy and resistant to large fires that can transform an entire region into a moonscape. As of Tuesday morning, the Rim Fire had become such a blaze. It had grown to nearly 180,000 acres — or about 280 square miles — and had become the seventh biggest fire in state history. It was more than five times as large as the City of Oakland. And it likely will get much bigger. In fact, by the time you read this, the Rim Fire likely will be among the top five largest fires ever recorded in California.
Smoke from the conflagration is easily visible from space. And at times, walls of flames have soared two hundred feet into the air. When wildfires burn that hot and flames shoot up that high, they become nearly impossible to control as the fire jumps through treetops. State fire officials told ABC-7 news that such a crown fire leapt into the tall sugar pines in Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp on Sunday, and then burned the popular camp to the ground.
Owned and operated by the City of Berkeley, Tuolumne Family Camp had been around since 1922. Beloved by thousands of East Bay families, the camp was set along the beautiful Tuolumne River, and featured swimming, hiking, fishing, and open-air tent cabins. It's now in ruins.
Other family camps that are popular with Bay Area residents also were still in harm's way on Tuesday, including San Francisco's Camp Mather, San Jose Family Camp, and Camp Tawonga, a Jewish camp for kids.
The Rim Fire also has been bearing down on Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which is the main water supply for the City of San Francisco and provides drinking water to dozens of Bay Area cities. If the blaze reaches the overgrown forests surrounding the reservoir, it could pollute the freshwater with huge amounts of ash. That's bad news for San Franciscans and other communities that depend on Hetch Hetchy because the reservoir is not equipped with a water-filtration system.
"This fire is a tragedy," Spreck Rosekrans, of the environmental group Restore Hetch Hetchy, told me. "And the water system is particularly vulnerable to the possibility of substantial amounts of ash getting into the water supply — because it's unfiltered."
San Francisco operates one of the few unfiltered water systems in the nation — and the only major one in California. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which operates Hetch Hetchy, has resisted building a filtration system because of the cost — at least $1 billion. The Rim Fire also could damage San Francisco's electric-power supply. O'Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy produces hydroelectric power for the city, and the fire has the potential to knock out major power lines.
As of Tuesday morning, the Rim Fire (which was so named because it started near a sweeping lookout point known as The Rim of the World) had burned 111 structures, according to state officials. Most of those buildings were in Tuolumne County. And that's ironic because Tuolumne County is a GOP stronghold, and the county is now burning out of control thanks to federal budget cuts pushed mainly by Republicans. As of earlier this year, registered Republican voters outnumbered Democrats in Tuolumne County by 10 percentage points.
Some Democrats, of course, have voted over the years to slash sustainable forestry management plans as well. And we're seeing now why that was such a huge mistake. The LA Times noted that the taxpayer costs of the Rim Fire have already reached $20 million and are expected to grow. And that pricetag does not include the incalculable loss of a beloved camp and the potential loss of two historic groves of giant sequoias. Nor does it factor in the costs of San Francisco's water supply becoming contaminated.
Unfortunately, we have a long tradition in this country of waiting until after a disaster to spend money rather than funding preventative efforts beforehand. And the Rim Fire is just the latest example.