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Breaking Rim Fire: As Labor Day weekend starts, crews cut breaks to halt the blaze

August 23, 2013

As smoke settled into the valley of Yosemite National Park on Labor Day, firefighters continued to gain ground against the fourth largest wildfire in California history. On Monday, they declared the Rim Fire—which has torched more than 228,000 acres including Berkeley-owned Tuolomne Family Camp, and forced the evacuation of the Cal Alumni Association’s Lair of the Golden Bear camp—60 percent percent contained.

Fire officials credited increased humidity and the effect of fire breaks created to stop the spread of the fire, including around the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which provides San Francisco’s city water.

The surge of what is being called the “Rim Fire”and the potential threat to San Francisco’s water supply had prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency. The jeopardized area contains some 4,500 homes and a significant concentration of children’s and family camps, many of which have been voluntarily vacated or evacuated—including San Francisco’s Camp Mather, and San Jose’s Family Camp. A quarter of the blaze is burning within the boundaries of the national park.

The fire moved within six miles of the Lair on Monday, just one day after The Daily Californian had erroneously reported that the camp had burned down, a story it later corrected. Campers and non-essential staff left the Lair last week, after Tuolumne County officials issued an air quality alert. The camp also canceled a Family Weekend and Sports and Recreation Camp. “Right now, we have ash falling from the sky,” Lair director Mike Yaley said from the camp last Thursday, describing the scene as “dark, orange and kind of gloomy.”

This, however, is a somewhat familiar scene. August is typically the beginning of wildfire season for California. Last year, around the same time, wildfires raged north of Sacramento and in Mendocino County.

“Conditions are ripe for fire of that type,” Scott Stephens, a fire expert and UC Berkeley professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management. “There’s no doubt that this was a dry year and since 2000, there’s been an upward trend of large, extensive fires.”

Alongside the Rim Fire, there are around a dozen ongoing wildfires in California, the Forestry Department reports. Across the western United States, 53 infernos are currently burning. Compared to last year, the National Interagency Fire Center says there have been around 10,000 fewer fires between the months of January and August, but that does not mean wildfires are less of a threat.

“Fires are beginning to get larger,” Stephens said. “Climate change is one of those reasons and we’ve set the stage for 70-80 years of fire management like this. It’s the devil’s sword for setting up hazardous conditions.”

For more on why development is making these fires more dangerous, see California Magazine’s report here. To learn why a Cal fire expert believes Sierra forests are becoming more flammable, see California Magazine’s report here. For terrific photos from the scene of Rim Fire, check out The Atlantic’s gallery.

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