A quick glance at the publicly available infrared data taken last night reveals three key areas of concern. While much of the west flank of the fire has been secure for some time now, protecting the residents of Mariposa Pines, Jerseydale, Midpines, and most of the the Triangle Road area, the north, south, and east flanks remain challenging for the 3,344 firefighters engaged in that containment effort. Below the fold, we will quickly take a look at those three critical operations in the order of their apparent importance, based on last night’s IR imagery. Hot, dry, windy weather is slated to persist over many Northern and Central California Fire areas through the weekend, while some fires in Southern California have received a bit of relief, by way of rare mid-summer rain.
Yosemite West: Yesterday or thereabouts the control line coming down off Henness Ridge into the Merced River drainage was breached and/or abandoned, and fire now seems to be flanking below Yosemite West to the north. Yosemite West sits perched on a ridgetop immediately adjacent to Yosemite National Park. It is comprised mostly of vacation homes and rentals, and has received considerable attention by the park, in terms of protective fuel treatments – primarily thinning of small diameter trees and prescribed burning. Nonetheless, the community sits at a precarious point that has, over the years, necessitated the construction and subsequent re-opening of one of the few dozer lines approved within the park for fire suppression. As we can see there are many spot fires ahead of the main fire now situated directly below the community. Brian Hughes, the Arrowhead Hotshot Captain, died just days ago when he was struck by a tree while strengthening the Henness Ridge line south of Yosemite West, shown in the foreground of the image above. That line now seems compromised, bringing a threat back to Yosemite West. Sadly, the what if theme of this year’s California Incident Management Team workshop now seems prophetic.
Yosemite West Update, August 3rd: 24 hours later, and the Ferguson Fire is knocking on the door. We can speculate that a couple of more linear features closest to the Yosemite West Label are attempted burnouts occurring early this morning, but there are certainly multiple spots fires of different sizes at the edge of town. You can bet this isn’t how the firefighters wanted to have to defend the community–right up next to houses, with an advancing fire front threatening. Today will be an interesting day in Yosemite West. It will all be over by tomorrow, and my guess is the fire will be up and over the Wawona Road, heading to Badger.
Yosemite West Update, August 3rd 1700 hrs: My sources confirm that the Ferguson Fire burned past Yosemite West, across the Wawona Road, and is heading toward Badger Pass ski area. Also confirmed that crews were burning out around Yosemite West last night, hoping to protect as many structures as possible there. I have no information on the status of structures there, and I have had one unconfirmed report of the fire having crossed the Merced River (again) near El Portal and fire heading toward Foresta (again….four or five times, since the 1990 A Rock Fire, in fact).
Ferguson Fire Perimeter – Merced GroveMerced Grove: While Yosemite National Park has conducted numerous prescribed fires in the two principal groves of Giant Sequoias, the smaller Merced Grove has received very little treatment. The surrounding Moss Creek drainage is choked with encroaching white fir and heavy surface fuel loads. Because of that, the Merced Grove is more at risk from a wildfire than the other groves. In fact, it was the prescribed burning in the Tuolumne Grove, just north of Crane Flat, that protected that grove from damage during the Rim Fire. While the media loves to push the notion of the big three D’s — devastation, destruction, and demolition — when it comes to Yosemite, generally, and the Giant Sequoia groves, in particular; forest ecologists have understood the importance of fire for the regeneration and maintenance of Giant Sequoia groves for decades. In fact, a slow backing fire though the Merced Grove under controlled conditions would do more for it’s preservation into perpetuity than anything else. Unfortunately, the current wildfire situation would not be that optimum condition. So, firefighters are firing off the old Coulterville Road that leaves the park to the south, and they are using the 2013 Rim Fire as a backstop for burning out to the west on the Big Oak Flat Road. That should be a fairly straightforward operation, given all the snag removal along the road after the Rim Fire, and any spots across into the five-year old fire footprint should be easy to pick up.
Wawona: Finally we look at the southeast corner of the Ferguson Fire, where firefighters are trying to bring their two burnout operations together at the tiny hamlet of Wawona, home of a nine-hole golf course that should come in handy, and the beautiful Wawona hotel, built in 1876, which is one of only a few balloon-framed wood buildings of that era that hasn’t burned down. Wawona is also at the epicenter of Yosemite’s prescribed fire program, and has had many fuel treatments, both thinning of small-diameter trees and prescribed burning. In fact, you can see in the image above the lighter coloration of vegetation where large landscape prescribed fires and the Jack Fire, a managed lightning fire, all came together in the early to mid-2000’s to protect Wawona’s north and west flanks. The east flank is now protected by last year’s South Fork Fire, another fire managed over the long-term rather than the full suppression posture taken on most wildland fires in California. In fact, one has to wonder, why fire managers are now choosing to risk so much firefighter exposure firing and holding the midslope Wawona Road, when nothing but last year’s solid black from the Empire and South Fork Fires, old prescribed fires, and granite await the Ferguson Fire to the east.
Lastly, crews are inching their way across the watershed boundary between the South Fork of the Merced and the East Fork of the Chowchilla River drainage. Every night, the combined influence of the Chowchilla and Fresno Rivers overpower the downcanyon influence in the South Fork drainage, so firefighters face adverse nighttime conditions and have had at least one large spot fire south of their lines. Getting this line burned into Wawona and tying in with the operation progressing south on the Wawona Road will be critical to mitigate the threat to Fish Camp and beyond, averting another Harlow Fire situation. We wish all the crews and personnel the best and hope for their success, as the principal goal is that everyone goes home at the end of each shift.
And for a final note, a disclaimer – The opinions and interpretation of publicly-available wildland fire information found herein are solely those of a private, informed citizen, and in no way reflect the official position of any governmental organization.