It seems that the Ferguson Fire is destined to enter Yosemite National Park, and by God, the Type I Incident Commanders have vowed to stop the wildfire in its tracks, no matter what! They are currently planning to convert the southern entrance Hiway 41 (known locally as the “Wawona Road”) into a fireline that will contain that flank of the Ferguson Fire. This is one of the most traveled roads in the Park, leading to the ranger compound in Wawona, the community of Yosemite West, and access to the famed Mariposa Grove of giant Sequoias as well as Yosemite Valley.
National Park Service fire staff have been imploring the IC to incorporate the Park’s legacy of ecological fire use in developing their suppression strategy if and when the wildfire enters the Park. They have argued that it would be best to not try to stop the fire along that twisting, winding, midslope road where, despite the pavement, it will be extremely challenging to stop the fire from spotting across. A better plan, they argue, would be to engage the fire on the ridgeline above the road where there are plenty of rockfields, and fuels and vegetation have already been reduced by past prescribed burning units mixed in with burned patches from past wildland fire use. Where these burned units and patches are located, crews will have a better chance of catching the fire and holding it up in the high country until the weather changes. This way the Ferguson Fire could also fill in some of the gaps between burned units, providing the benefits of burning to the ecosystem, while also avoiding unnecessary risk to firefighters from trying to stop a headfire at midslope. Below the Wawona Road there has not been much burning done, and the area is thick with scattered dead trees. Engaging the wildfire above the road would spare some unnecessary firefighter exposure, and would also spare that scenic drive from the unsightly scars of a fire containment line that might not work and may not even be needed if the fire does not spread that far on its own.
But no. That would involve managing the wildfire with time and space, inevitably increasing its size and duration. By God, taxpayers are shelling out a million dollars per day for that Type I team and they are going to get their money’s worth! So the IC is setting up an epic firefight along the Wawona Road. What will it take to “improve” a road to become a fireline? Lots and lots of trees will need to be cut alongside the road: both small trees that can carry fire spread, and big dead trees that could fall on firefighters or fall across the line. Lots of aerial fire retardant could also be dumped alongside the road, painting white granite rocks red, and making the old-growth red firs even redder. There will be lots of roadside soil disturbance from crews mopping up embers in the ash, too, assuming that they are successful at stopping the fire there. And there will be other impacts of making the road become a battlefield trammeled by the trench-warfare tactics of a firefight.
The Ferguson Fire may or may not even reach the road, but regardless, the hundreds of stumps and logs cut for the fireline will be what remains as its legacy for years after the incident is over. Tourists will have miles and miles of roadside stumps to view inside a National Park, versus what might have been a natural a fire mosaic displaying all kinds of beauty and mystery, not to mention security from the next wildfire. Yosemite’s legacy of ecological fire use has proven its success in mitigating fire behavior during the Rim Fire, and should be allowed to prove itself again in the Ferguson Fire.
There are real concerns for the safety of the community of Yosemite West located just outside the Park, but that is where efforts to prepare structures for fire’s arrival should be focused. As to the ranger compound in Wawona, the Park’s fire staff have been preparing that community for a wildfire like the Ferguson Fire for many years, using a combination of prescribed burning and wildland fire use. The same goes for the giant Sequoias in the Mariposa Grove, trees that were in decline due to past fire exclusion but are now reviving with new generations of sequoias thanks to the Park Service reintroducing fire in the groves.
The IC’s decision to stop the Ferguson Fire along the Wawona Road is not about fear or hatred of fire–that is a media generated meme constructed for public consumption. Rather, it is about hubris, the need control Wild Nature, to show her who is the real (fire) boss. Let’s hope that if the IC charges ahead with this plan, that it does not cost the lives of any firefighters, will minimize the resource and visual impacts to the land, and will successfully contain the fire so that the Type I IC Team can get the heck out of the Park soon. Their time and talents are desperately needed elsewhere where people and their homes are facing real dangers and real destruction from fire. Places far away from Yosemite and its fire-adapted forests and fire-prepared structures.