Rim Fire at Yosemite, Blessing and a Curse

Wildfires Continue to Grow

 

The new Rim Fire at Yosemite National Park is a blessing and a curse.  Reports of this forest fire covering a large area of land north west of Yosemite are headline news.  The size of land that is already burned is more than the size of whole Caribbean islands but smoke is moving north, so the most popular locations in Yosemite Park, the rock of Half Dome and El Capitan, are still safe and clear-skied for visitors to enjoy.

The fire started back on August 17th and is still a problem for thousands of firefighters who have set backfires to slow it down.  The size is impressive; since 1932 it is the fifth largest fire ever recorded in California and it will be several weeks before the Rim Fire will be 100% contained. But should it be?

“This is not a catastrophe for Yosemite National Park.  These trees are very old and it’s not the first fire they’ve ever seen, “said Trevor Augustino, spokesman for the U.S. Fire Service at Rim Fire command center.  The issue is Fire Suppression. Since the Great Fire of 1910 that burned approximately 3 million acres of land in Washington, Idaho and Montana, the US government has committed to a policy of Fire Suppression.

Fire Suppression is based on the belief that fires are a nuisance and usually a devastation that should be avoided at all costs.  As a result the US government has financed the cost of extinguishing any blaze that occurs, a cost of multi millions of dollars.   The cost of this single fire has been estimated at more than $39 million so far.  The National Parks Conservation Association notes that, “America’s national parks suffer from a chronic, system-wide funding shortfall in excess of $800 million annually and Yosemite is no exception.”  Fire Suppression is well financed but conservation is clearly not. The Rim Fire at Yosemite National Park is a blessing and a curse.

Ecologists have long argued that this can be a mistake.  Although public opinion is easily expressed with fear of wildfires, there are many benefits as well.  Regular forest fires reduce the buildup of tree debris and the chance for a more disastrous fire is substantially reduced.  Native species receive a boost after a fire as competitive plants are wiped out and the ash from a fire adds nutrients to the ground soil that encourages new growth.  Forest fires may be a menace for urban planners but they support nature’s delicate infrastructure.

Whether the Rim Fire is a disaster or a blessing will be source of ongoing debate.  The argument in support of allowing natural fires is ecologically sound but no-one knows how this fire started.  If it was manmade and if it reaches the reservoir that feeds the water system to San Francisco, the old established belief of extinguishing it as soon as possible carries weight.  Now, we hope for the safety of the 4,500 threatened buildings and the more than 4,500 firefighters who are battling the blaze.  The Rim Fire is a blessing and a curse.

By: Vicky Judah

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