National Geographic News
GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 25:  Flames from the Rim Fire consume trees on August 25, 2013 near Groveland, California. The Rim Fire continues to burn out of control and threatens 4,500 homes outside of Yosemite National Park. Over 2,000 firefighters are battling the blaze that has entered a section of Yosemite National Park and is currently 7 percent contained.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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

Photograph by Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Ker Than

for National Geographic

Published August 26, 2013

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.

 

 A team of scientists measure a giant sequoia.
A team of scientists measure a giant sequoia. See "Pictures: Forest Giant"

Photograph by Michael Nichols, National Geographic

 

Fiery History

Yosemite is no stranger to fire. Lightning strikes spark natural blazes, and American Indians living in the valley once purposely set fires to promote the growth of plants they relied on for food, medicine, and materials to make baskets, string, and shelter.

These traditional burning practices were stopped in favor of a policy aimed at fire suppression when President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill in 1864 creating the Yosemite Grant.

The grant gave California control of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove, and marked the first time the federal government set aside park land specifically for preservation and public use.

In 1890, Congress passed an Act designating the land around Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove as Yosemite National Park, and in 1906 those lands were united into a single national park under the protection of the federal government.

In 2014, Yosemite will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the creation of the grant that helped create the park. Several visitor events have been planned in the lead up to the anniversary on June 30, 2014.

By 1970, scientists realized that the fire suppression methods that had been official policy in Yosemite since the park's inception were actually doing more harm than good. The lack of natural fires caused by lightning had led to overgrown and unhealthy forests that made them more vulnerable to larger, more dangerous fires.

As a result, the National Park Service has for the past 40 years conducted carefully managed "prescribed burns" to clear unsafe accumulations of dead wood and for ecological restoration purposes.

The effects of these fires still fall far short of what scientists think once occurred naturally, however. It's estimated that an average of 16,000 of Yosemite’s 747,000 acres may have burned under natural conditions in the park each year. Since the 1970s, prescribed fires have burned between 12,200 and 15,600 acres per decade.

 

 Yosemite Valley
The wildfire known as Rim Fire has blazed through Yosemite National Park in California.

Photograph by Joson/Corbis

 

'Highest Priority'

The size of the Rim Fire and its proximity to Yosemite led U.S. Forest Service Dick Fleishman to call it the "highest priority fire in the country right now."

Yosemite National Park is "not just a national treasure, it's a world treasure," Fleishman told USA Today.

Despite increasing concerns about the growth of the blaze, Medema insisted that Yosemite Valley is not under any imminent threat at the moment.

It would take "days and days and weeks" for the fire to get that far, Medema told USA Today.

23 comments
Robert Easley
Robert Easley

It's too soon to make historical comparisons. The fire is still burning and in parts of the park it will burn until the first good rains, perhaps October or November.

Jon Peckham
Jon Peckham

It may not be a bad thing for the fire to burn through the valley?  There are way to many trees and growth harming many of the views there. It could really help tourism there if a lot of that was cleared out.

Jon Peckham
Jon Peckham

It may not be a bad thing for the fire to burn through the valley?  There are way to many trees and growth harming many of the views there. It could really help tourism there if a lot of that was cleared out.

Jon Peckham
Jon Peckham

It may not be a bad thing for the fire to burn through the valley?  There are way to many trees and growth harming many of the views there. It could really help tourism there if a lot of that was cleared out.

Jack Baronner
Jack Baronner

I hope this fire will be contained outside the perimeter of most of the park. I visited Yosemite when I was just in seventh grade. Now that I look back on it, that trip to the valley and the surrounding area were some of the most stunning and scenic places I have ever laid my eyes upon. Too bad my parents haven't take me back yet. I feel like I didn't appreciate it to the full extent because I was too young to understand where I actually was. It really is not just a national treasure but also an international gem. 

Bill Doyle
Bill Doyle

It is my goal to visit this beautiful park one day soon. I don't care if I have to drive out there to do it. I hope this fire is contained soon and no one gets hurt.

John P.
John P.

Robin R, I take it you're a young person and know very little about the real history of the early Americans, both Indians and others. Indian tribes fought with each other as much as they fought with the early settlers.  The best fighting Indian tribes won the best lands.  The USA covered a lot of territory, and the Indian populations were very few, while the growing European population needed room to grow. Some Indians traded with the early settlers and got things brought over from Europe that they never would have gotten otherwise.  But some Indians were vicious savages and attacked and murdered innocent women and children making their was across the west. Ever hear about the savages attacking and scalping innocent travelers?  Probably not, because you've been brainwashed that all Indians were good, sun- worshipping friendly people. But the truth is that early settlers had to unite to protect themselves from wild Indians as well as wild animals.  Europeans settlers got the land the same way the Indians got it; they fought for it and they traded for it. If you don't like the way it turned out, too bad. If you feel so sorry for the Indians then go and sell your house that is probably sitting on "stolen" land and donate the money to the nearest Indian tribe... and, while you're at it buy yourself a one-way ticket back to the country you or your ancestors came from.  It's the right thing for you to do if you feel so bad for the Indians.  

Robin R.
Robin R.

Are Indians still allowed to have a place in the park? I know at Burjey Falls they have sacred ceremonies at the pool at the base of the falls. 150 year anniversary of Yosemite becoming a park, but is it also 150 years of taking away more land that didn't belong to us? 

Prayers for the fire to be contained. Though, I agree with many that periodic natural fires are necessary to control worse fires later. Tough call. Prayers to the fire fighters for safety. 

Keri S.
Keri S.

While this was a decent article it lacked any actual fire history in and around Yosemite National Park.  When reflecting upon Yosemite's fire history you can not forget the A-Rock and Steamboat fires of 1990, along with the Ackerson Complex Fire of 1996 which burned in both YNP and Stanislaus National Forest.  As a fire lookout on the Stanislaus National Forest between 1999-2002 I witnessed plenty of natural fires burning in the back country of the park as well as in the SNF.  Fire is a natural occurrence and shouldn't be forgotten. Articles highlighting "fire history" need more substance on the larger fires that have burned in and around the park, in both highly visible areas and remote back country settings. After all, just because the average person doesn't know or see the smoke, doesn't mean that fire isn't occurring.  Many in remote back country areas are left to burn naturally with minimal maintenance, and occur throughout the fire season.  

What might be of more interest would be an article highlighting the extent of the current Rim Fire and the overlap of previous large scale conflagrations in both YNP and the Stanislaus National Forest.

Joseph Elfelt
Joseph Elfelt

The link below will always display the most recent perimeter of the Rim Fire and current hot spots straight from the GeoMAC server.  This is the same server that also provides data to the crews on the fire line.  Sometimes the data on the InciWeb site is not as current as the data that comes from the GeoMAC server.  (The InciWeb site gets its data from GeoMAC.)  

The map also shows wind speed and direction.  Note that the wind data is always 3 hours old.

For more information regarding this map, you can follow the “About” link in the upper left corner of the map.

http://www.mappingsupport.com/p/fires/2013_rim_fire_map.html

Joseph, the Gmap4 guy

Eric Hanson
Eric Hanson

@Jon Peckham There have been control burns in the Valley. Also there was a control burn right outside the Valley recently, The Big Meadow fire, that got out of control. This year, there was the Forebidden fire that has continued to burn since May. But it is burning ar a much slower, controlled speed. Don't hear much about that one, since it is under control.

Ker Than
Ker Than

@Bill Doyle Hello, I'm the author of this piece. Yosemite is beautiful. It'll definitely be worth your while to visit.

Greg R.
Greg R.

@John P.  I am so disappointed to have come across your post. How can someone log onto a site like this and post what you do? You prove the point that wisdom does not come with age.It is obvious you do not have a subscription. Before you ever post anything in regards to the Native people of North America, I suggest you pick up the August 2012 issue and read the cover article. The only people I feel bad for are the misinformed like you. You should feel embarrassed about your so called knowledge of "real" history.... 

Greg R.
Greg R.

@John P.  I'm so disappointed to have come across your post. How can someone log on a site like National Geographic and post what you do? You prove the point that wisdom does not come with age. I doubt you even have a subscription to the magazine. Before you ever post anything in regards to the Native people of North America, I suggest you pick up the August 2012 issue and read the cover article. The only people I feel sorry for are people like you.

Russell Scalf
Russell Scalf

@John P.   Sorry, but your post is just crazy.  Many people came here to flee religious oppression (often quite lethal) in Europe. They were killing each other over issues like adult baptism vs infant baptism. That's why many Germans came to Pennsylvania, they fled for their lives!  If boatloads of Chinese (just an example) came into your area, began expropriating land and taking over, what would be your reaction? Welcome wagon?  Sheesh!

Ker Than
Ker Than

@Keri S. Good points. The story's been updated to provide some more historical context. 

Bill Doyle
Bill Doyle

@Ker Than @Bill Doyle I am sure it is. My parents visited some time back and said it was stunningly beautiful. My wife wants to go to, we are going! :)

craig hill
craig hill

@Bill Doyle Just do your research when to go and when to avoid, or the frustrations you will suffer if you don't will be what you remember most.

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