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More than 1,000 firefighters scrambling as crews lose ground in Yosemite

July 13, 2022 Updated Wed., July 13, 2022 at 8:09 p.m.

Firefighters at work in Mariposa Grove, Calif., on July 7. (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
Firefighters at work in Mariposa Grove, Calif., on July 7. (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
By Melissa Montalvo Sacramento Bee

More than 1,000 firefighters were battling the Washburn fire in Yosemite National Park on Wednesday, but crews lost ground overnight as containment fell slightly.

Containment on Wednesday was estimated at 17%, according to Stanley Bercovitz, a spokesperson with the U.S. Forest Service and part of the California Incident Management Agency. That represents a 5 percentage point decrease from Tuesday’s morning report that estimated fire containment at around 22%.

Bercovitz said the fire had grown by more than 200 acres since Tuesday evening, from 3,516 to 3,772 acres as of Wednesday morning.

Yosemite National Park Superintendent Cicely Muldoon said there was no lightning July 7, the day the fire started, and it appeared to be human-caused. The cause is under investigation.

As of Tuesday evening, the size of the personnel team has also increased by 396 since Tuesday morning’s reported crew size of 650 people.

There are 1,045 crew members dedicated to the Washburn fire. The firefighting effort includes forest crews, hotshot crews, engines of various sizes, water tenders and bulldozers, said Bercovitz.

Hot and dry weather was expected Wednesday, but no major winds, which Bercovitz described as the “big fear” for the Washburn fire’s growth.

He also said the public should know that “there are no great surprises” in the fire activity so far.

“We’re still quite fortunate that this is not a large wind-driven fire,” she said. “It’s mainly been driven by the terrain and winds that go upslope in the afternoon and down in the evenings.”

Current wind patterns are below 20 mph, and sustained winds are “very minor.”

“That’s really fortunate for this fire,” he said. “It’s important for people to be aware of the fact that it’s growing through extremely old growth forests.”

Longer, hotter summers and warm periods are drying things out, which is what’s putting up the large column of smoke each day, typically in the afternoon when things heat up.

“That’s to be expected,” Bercovitz said. People should “be prepared to see that each day.”

Based on a statement from the National Park Service on Wednesday, officials expect “active-to-very active fire behavior” over the next several days, especially in areas with “heavy dead and down fuels. Afternoon conditions are producing areas of high-intensity fire behavior on the east flank of the fire resulting in additional acreage.”

As of Wednesday, Mariposa Grove remained closed until further notice, and the community of Wawona remained under an evacuation order. Wawona Road (Highway 41) is closed from the park’s south entrance near Fish Camp to Henness Ridge Road.

As of Wednesday, all media tours on the southern entrance have been canceled for “safety’s sake” due to the fire, smoke, and trees that have been damaged. “Things are still in a state of flux,” Bercovitz said.

The Sierra National Forest, which is also impacted by the Washburn fire, issued an order on Monday morning that prohibits the use of fire, campfire, stove fire, and smoking through Nov. 15.

Firefighters working to protect giant sequoias

In an official update on Wednesday morning, officials celebrated the coordinated efforts of the local, county, state and federal response to the Washburn fire – and gave credit to the “proactive” fire management program at Yosemite National Park.

The update also points to the historical factors that gave way to today’s fire conditions. “The Sierra Nevada is experiencing the repercussions of 100+ years of fire exclusion,” according to the update.

However, Yosemite National Park has conducted prescribed burns for over 50 years. “This, combined with fuel reduction treatments, defensible space programs, and biomass reduction, has created opportunities for firefighters to be successful on the Washburn fire to date,” read the update.

Still, Bercovitz said there’s “a lot of forest litter multiple feet deep,” which is fueling the growth of the Washburn fire. “Trees die naturally and the branches break off, needles break off for hundreds of years, and that’s built up.”

Fire crews expressed confidence on Monday night that they would save Mariposa Grove, an area that contains hundreds of mature giant sequoia trees, some of which are thousands of years old, near the southern entrance to the park.

The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias has experienced “minimal fire impacts” due to a long history of prescribed burning and proactive fire management and fuel reduction.

“As a result, there have been no known loss of any large giant sequoias,” read the statement.

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