Yosemite Fire Threatens Ancient Trees

6:14 AM, Aug 26, 2013   |    comments
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USA TODAY

SAN FRANCISCO - A massive fire burning near Yosemite National Park continued its spread Sunday. More campgrounds were evacuated and firefighters worked to protect ancient giant sequoia groves while they also sought to hold back any possible threats to the water and electrical supplies for San Francisco and surrounding communities.

The Rim Fire reached almost 134,000 acres Sunday and was "very active on its eastern side," said Dick Fleishman, an information officer with the unified fire command directed by Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service.

The towns of Tuolumne and Mi-Wuk Village and smaller communities between them were under voluntary evacuation Sunday, said Fleishman, just as evacuation advisories were lifted for Pine Mountain Lake and Buck Meadows. "We still have homes that are risk there," he said. An evacuation center was set up in the Sonora, Calif. for those who left their homes.

Local ham radio operators were providing community information in Sonora, Calif., where evacuees were being fed and housed. Carol Logue, with the Tuolumne County Amateur Radio Electronics Society, volunteered Sunday. She said the the smell of the fire was all around. "There's so much smoke it's really hard on people's lungs," she said. "You can get on the hilltops around here and see the fires."

Nearly 2,850 firefighters are battling the blaze, some from as far away as Florida, and more are being drafted to help, he said. As of 10 a.m. local time Sunday, the fire was 7% contained.

"It's the highest priority fire in the country right now because of its location, because Yosemite National Park is at risk. It's not just a national treasure, it's a world treasure," Fleishman said.

There were dozens of smaller fires burning across the West, officials said. The largest was the Beaver Creek Fire in Idaho, which has scorched more than 111,000 acres. It is now over 80% contained, according to the federal fire tracking site InciWeb.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency for San Francisco because the fire also threatens the city's water and electrical infrastructure.

Much of the San Francisco Bay area gets its water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir behind O'Shaughnessy dam, including about 2.6 million customers in San Francisco and nearby towns. The famously pure water travels 160 miles entirely through gravity-fed pipes.

Officials don't know how Hetch Hetchy is faring, Medema said. An incident commander flew near the area Sunday morning but the smoke was so thick that the crew was unable to see the reservoir or surrounding area.

As of Sunday morning there was no damage to the reservoir and the water was still clear and clean, despite fears that ash could fall into the reservoir. "The turbidity levels are fine," said Fleishman, referring to a measurement of particles in the water.

A secondary concern is the power generated by the dam, which creates the reservoir. It generates hydroelectric power used for some municipal buildings in the city, including the airport and San Francisco General Hospital.

The system has three powerhouses, two of which were taken offline Saturday because of possible damage. The third, Moccasin Powerhouse, was still generating power Saturday, according to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

So far the fire is several miles away from the dam but there is concern that it could put the power lines at risk if it gets closer, Fleishman, said. Surveys by power crews Saturday night found about 12 miles of power lines had been damaged.

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