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Yosemite Rim Fire: why there's more optimism about taming it

Cooler temperatures, higher humidity, and lighter winds are helping those battling the Yosemite Rim Fire, which is now 30 percent contained. Also factors: drones and areas already scorched in the past decade.

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Although it’s been imperative to concentrate on the fire’s containment, some experts worry that it may have meant ignoring longer-term planning, to the possible detriment of wildlife.

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“To focus on the resources that are being poured into the firefighting efforts at the Rim fire is to miss what I think are two major points,” says Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis and a firefighting expert at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

The first, he says via e-mail, is that such high-intensity fires have often occurred before and “are ecologically quite useful, opening up dense forest so that other species can take advantage of the charred terrain.” Among them are the black-backed woodpecker, deer, black bears, and the rare Pacific fisher.

“The second issue is that we tend to narrow in on the immediate moment, the fire and its containment, when we need as well to start the planning for when the fire dies out,” Professor Miller writes. This is particularly essential for San Francisco and other communities that secure some of their potable water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, he says.

"Post-fire debris flows from winter storms could wreak havoc on this system," Miller says, adding, "and thus impact millions of Bay Area residents who depend on its flow and the electricity it produces.”

There are still immediate challenges. Because the fire has entered Yosemite National Park, firefighters – now at 4,400 – are restricted in what they can do. With much of the park designated as wilderness, vehicles and even roads are prohibited by federal law. Therefore, fire commanders can’t deploy bulldozers to plow fire lines, and crews can’t go in with firetrucks.

In exceptional situations, officials order smoke-jumping crews to parachute into backcountry and drop supplies and tools.

Also, the Tuolumne and Merced Rivers have federal designations as wild and scenic rivers, meaning hand crews have to avoid clearing around the rivers and fire aviation managers need to give the rivers wide berth when dropping retardant.

One promising sign: The Rim Fire is now burning into areas of Yosemite National Park that have had several past managed wildfires, says Scott Stephens, professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I believe these past fires will have a big influence on the Rim Fire and if the previous area has been burned in 10 or less years, the fire will go out on its own,” he writes in an e-mail.

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