JARDINE: How did Rim fire grow so big?

jjardine@modbee.comSeptember 7, 2013 

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The Rim fire rages out of control in this photo from Aug. 22, 2013.

ANDY ALFARO — The Modesto Bee Buy Photo

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textJeff Jardine
    Title: Local columnist
    Coverage areas: People, issues, the community
    Bio: Jeff Jardine joined The Bee's staff in 1988 after a decade at the Stockton Record. He covered sports before moving into news in 1996 and became the Local Columnist in 2003. He graduated from University of the Pacific in 1979, majoring in communications and history.
    Recent stories written by Jeff
    On Twitter: @jeffjardine57
    E-mail: jjardine@modbee.com

— As crews finally get a stranglehold on the Rim fire, and many residents of Tuolumne and Mariposa counties would no doubt love to get a stranglehold on the deer hunter who allegedly started it, questions remain.

How did the fire, which consumed only about 200 acres in the first day, morph into the third-largest wildfire in California history? How did it explode into a 252,156-acre, fire-breathing dragon that ate 111 buildings including 11 homes, destroyed some summer camps, and has burned through $81 million of taxpayers' money with the meter still running?

How did it destroy nearly a third of the portion of the Stanislaus National Forest that lies within Tuolumne County, nearly 70,000 acres of Yosemite National Park, and threaten the communities of Pine Mountain Lake, Groveland and Buck Meadows, Tuolumne City and towns along the Highway 108 corridor before being tamed?

And now what? With the beginning of fall officially one week away, the race begins to limit erosion in the event we actually see significant rain in the Sierra and foothills this winter.

It goes without saying the hunter who ignited this mess Aug. 17 defied both law and logic, exhibiting a mind-boggling degree of stupidity and irresponsibility.

Fire restrictions went into effect in June, meaning no campfires are allowed anywhere in the forest below the 9,000-foot elevation other than in developed campgrounds and in the wilderness area, and those campfires require a permit.

Perhaps lawmakers needed to be a bit more specific:

"Campfires on steep, brushy hillsides in remote, inaccessible canyons, during droughts and heat waves, and where road signs read 'camp fires prohibited,' are strictly, well, prohibited."

When the campfire got out of control, the terrain was too rugged to get "boots on the ground," Forest Service spokesman Jerry Snyder said. They didn't immediately send ground troops into Clavey canyon, in no small part because firefighter Eva Schicke died during a fire a few miles away in 2004.

Instead, they tried to knock it down it from the air. But securing enough planes and helicopters to knock it out quickly turned out to be a problem as well. When the Rim fire began, it was one of roughly 14 burning within California alone. Others also scorched areas of Idaho and other western states.

Snyder had gone to the Aspen fire in the Sierra National Forest in July, only to be summoned back home home for the Power fire in the Stanislaus River canyon near Beardsley Reservoir on Aug. 8. Three days after it was contained, the Rim fire began.

Federal firefighters and equipment, including air power, were off fighting other fires throughout the state.

When the Rim fire jumped the Tuolumne River canyon and headed toward Buck Meadows and Pine Mountain Lake, authorities started scrambling to redirect firefighters and air power.

"We'd been a Type 2 fire," Snyder said. "When we upgraded to Type I, we had precedence to get more resources."

The difference between the two designations, he said, is the threat a fire poses to people and property.

The short version is that the Rim fire blew up — quadrupling to 63,366 acres on Aug. 21 alone — and by the time authorities could reach full strength in terms of firefighters (5,100) and air equipment, they were playing serious catch-up.

Cattlemen who hold grazing permits lost scores of animals. Sierra Pacific Industries lost roughly 17,000 acres of timber land along with some heavy equipment.

Meanwhile, as the folks in Pine Mountain Lake and Groveland could relax a bit knowing their homes would be spared, residents of Tuolumne City, Ponderosa Hills, Soulsbyville and along the Highway 108 corridor braced for the worst.

Texas-based insurance company USAA sent private contractor firefighters to protect homes in Mi-Wuk Village.

It wasn't until a week ago that firefighters made major strides, with help from cooler temperatures. Containment remains at 80 percent. At the same time, they went into damage-control mode because Twain Harte's fire chief, Todd McNeal, had told residents at an Aug. 23 community meeting that pot growers likely had started the blaze. A video of the meeting made YouTube, and the national media seized upon the possibility.

Not true. The landscape where the fire began was too steep for a pot farm, Snyder said.

And the archery deer season in that hunting zone began Aug. 17, the same day the fire flared up.

Forest Service officials announced Thursday that a hunter, yet to be arrested or identified publicly, is the culprit.

Which brings us to the what's-next part.

Sierra Pacific foresters plan to begin replanting their burned-out land as soon as possible, according to Melida Fleming, executive director of TuCARE, a pro-logging, mining and ranching organization in Sonora. And by next week, members of the Forest Service's Burn Area Emergency Response team will head into the charred areas to assess where they can minimize the erosion and ash runoff once it begins raining.

"They've got to do it right away," Snyder said.

Usually, drenching rainstorms can end a drought and jump-start the forest's recovery. Too much, though, creates mudslides and runoff into the rivers and reservoirs.

"We don't want too much all at once," he said. "We need a good, consistent amount of rain."

And perhaps a couple of decades before it begins to resemble a forest once again. For the time being, it is gray and dead.

Fire, fear, 385 square miles of destruction, at $81 million and counting.

Find another hobby, pal.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.

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