With Rim Fire Near, A Look at Yosemite’s History With Fire

Yosemite is safe for now, but the Rim Fire is moving steadily closer.

A wildfire in Yosemite National Park continues to burn out of control, consuming trees and threatening nearby homes.

A large wildfire burning in and around Yosemite National Park in California for nine days in a row, razing 134,000 acres, is one of the largest blazes in the state's history.

But the iconic national park and its environs have a long history with fire, from American Indians living in the Yosemite Valley setting fires to promote the growth of certain plants to decades of controlled burns led by the National Park Service.

Despite the efforts of more than 3,600 firefighters, the current so-called "Rim Fire" is only 15 percent contained and has led to the closure of Highway 120, a primary park entrance.

"There have been bigger portions of Yosemite burned in other fires, but there’s never been a fire as big as this one in Yosemite if you take the [Rim Fire] as a whole," explained Tom Medema, a spokesman with Yosemite National Park.

Other wildfires have burned closer to Yosemite Valley before, Medema noted. "The Meadow Fire of 2009 burned within just a couple miles of Yosemite Valley … and the A-Rock Fire [of 1990] was also much closer," he said in an interview Monday.

For now, the fire is confined to the park's more remote northwestern section, but close enough to two groves of giant sequoia trees, the Tuolumne Grove and Merced Grove, to prompt park officials to set sprinklers around them.

The blaze is about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of Yosemite Valley, far enough away that tourists visiting the park's main attractions have hardly felt its impact yet.

"It's still beautiful skies and very little smoke impact to Yosemite Valley and the park," park ranger and spokesperson Scott Gediman told the Los Angeles Times. Located in the central Sierra Nevada of California, about 150 miles east of San Francisco, Yosemite is renowned for its natural beauty, with soaring granite pinnacles and towering waterfalls, its wildlife species—including once-endangered species like the peregrine falcon and bighorn sheep—and its hundreds of miles of hiking trails.

The park is about the size of Rhode Island and attracts about four million visitors each year. It has been made famous by the writings and photographs of naturalists like John Muir and Ansel Adams, and was designated a World Heritage Site in 1984.