GROVELAND, Calif. – As the Rim fire has burned into Yosemite National Park and into the record books, it has been watched around the world. From Washington, D.C., National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said he monitored the blaze’s progress daily as flames threatened Sierra Nevada communities, ancient sequoia groves and the reservoir that holds San Francisco’s water supply.
On Saturday, he went to see the blaze firsthand.
“This is a gnarly fire,” Jarvis told firefighters at a briefing. “It’s got high attention, huge fuels, big flame lengths and lots of really, really dry, climate-driven conditions.”
Jarvis visited what has become one of the largest wildfires in California history as it continued to expand slowly and deter some visitors to Yosemite at the start of the busy Labor Day weekend. Crews fighting the 222,777-acre blaze had reached 40 percent containment by Saturday evening.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Jarvis said the massive Rim fire is one example of what is to be expected across the West as climate change, drought and decades of fire suppression leave forests dried out, overloaded with fuel and more vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires.
“It is a fire that’s demonstrating the challenges that we in the land-management business are facing with climate change,” he said. “A legacy of fire suppression in these forests and, recently, a reduction in our fire funding is all resulting in these huge fires that are incredibly difficult to control and very expensive.”
To prepare the landscape, Jarvis said, parks like Yosemite must reduce the fuels that have built up in forests that have not burned in many decades. Under Park Service policy, that means forest thinning, prescribed burns and, sometimes, using natural fires as a tool.
Firefighters have been battling the Rim fire since it broke out Aug. 17 in the Stanislaus National Forest. It drew worldwide attention once it crossed into Yosemite, where about a quarter of the 348-square-mile blaze is now burning.
Jarvis’ survey of the fire followed visits last week by California Gov. Jerry Brown and Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service.
He arrived as the blaze entered its third week during one of the most popular weekends of the year for U.S. parks. Yosemite officials say it has led to a decline in visitors, particularly starting Saturday after winds shifted and pushed fairly heavy smoke into Yosemite Valley, roughly 20 miles southeast of the fire’s edge.