GROVELAND, Calif. — Unnaturally long intervals between wildfires and years of drought primed the Sierra Nevada for the explosive conflagration chewing up the rugged landscape on the edge of Yosemite National Park, forestry experts say.
The blaze was just 40 acres when it was discovered near a road in Stanislaus National Forest on Aug. 17, but firefighters had no chance of stopping it in the early days. Fueled by thick forest floor vegetation in steep river canyons, it exploded to 10,000 acres 36 hours later, then to 54,000 acres and 105,620 acres within the next two days. On its 11th day, it had surpassed 179,400 acres, becoming the seventh-largest California wildfire in records dating to 1932.
Federal forest ecologists say that historic policies of fire suppression to protect Sierra timber interests left a century’s worth of fuel in the fire’s path. “That’s called making the woodpile bigger,” said Hugh Safford, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service in California.
Two years of drought and a constant slow warming across the Sierra Nevada also worked to turn the Rim Fire into an inferno. For years forest ecologists have warned that Western wildfires will only get worse.
“Every year the summer temperatures are a little warmer, hence the conditions for burning are a little more auspicious,” said Safford. “People can deny it all they want but it’s happening. Every year the fuels are a little bit drier.”
The Rim Fire’s exponential growth slowed only after hitting areas that had burned in the past two decades, and Safford says that shows the utility of prescribed and natural burns that clear brush and allow wildfires to move rapidly without killing trees.
“If you look at the Sierra Nevada as a whole, by far the largest portion hasn’t seen a fire since the 1910s and 1920s, which is very unnatural,” said Safford, who has authored several papers on the increasing wildlife severity across California’s mountain ranges. “This one isn’t stopping for a while.”