The Ferguson Fire has been burning for nearly two weeks and has captured most of the attention of the national news media. Tragically, one firefighter was killed on the second day of the fire when the bulldozer he was operating rolled down a steep slope. Miraculously, no homes have been lost as of July 25th. The Ferguson is going to burn a large area over a long time.
While the fire has been burning almost exclusively on the Sierra National Forest and some private lands, the focus of most of the news media’s reporting has been on Yosemite National Park, one of America’s gemstone natural treasures. Readers would be forgiven if they believed that the Ferguson Fire was already inside the Park given the media’s fixation on Yosemite. At the time of this writing, the only fire within the park is a narrow sliver, where crews have been burning out to protect the community of Yosemite West. The bulk of the fire is still over two miles away from the Park boundary. While the fire may enter the Park, perhaps within the next few burning periods, Park fire staff are prepared and ready to receive the fire. In fact, they’ve been preparing for this fire for the last 50 years or so by developing one of the nation’s premier ecological fire use programs.
Dozens of units large and small of past prescribed burns and wildland fire use areas managed by NPS fire crews have prepared a fire permeable landscape inside Yosemite where wildfires may enter and either fizzle out as they encounter recent burned areas or pass safely through without causing undue damage to Park structures like the ranger compound at Wawona, or high value natural resources like the Park’s giant sequoia groves. In fact, the Ferguson Fire will likely produce many beneficial ecological effects, helping to maintain reduced surface and ladder fuels, and recycle nutrients from dead and downed fuels. If and when small patches of large trees may be killed by flames, they will provide precious habitat structures for those species who inhabit snag forests. Next spring Park visitors will likely witness a burst of new plant and animal life inhabiting the freshly burned forest. Beautiful wildflower displays and sightings of large game browsing on the fresh grasses and shrubs will add to the delight of visitors. The Ferguson Fire may actually peel back some of the dense green forest cover that currently obscures some of the dramatic geology of Yosemite, which extends throughout the Park’s backcountry, not just its most famous Valley.
Past and present Yosemite fire staff have done the hard work of doing ecological fire use, managing prescribed and wildland fires to proactively prepare the ground to receive a wildfire like the Ferguson. If the fire enters Yosemite, Park managers are pleading with incident commanders to not attempt to stop the fire at the twisting, winding midslope road leading to Yosemite Valley. Park managers are advocating that the fire be permitted to pass over the road and burn up to the ridgetop where several recent burns implemented by the Park have more probability of success in catching the fire and holding it until the winter rains and snowfall puts it out. Yosemite fire staff are not fearing the Ferguson Fire and are cautiously optimistic. Indeed, this is set up similar to what happened when the Rim Fire roared across the Stanislaus National Forest, but then whimpered out, when it encountered recent prescribed burns and natural fire areas inside Yosemite. The Ferguson Fire will be another proving ground demonstrating the wisdom of ecological fire use by the National Park Service.
Nevertheless, the media is obsessed with the “threat” that the Ferguson Fire poses to the Park. In fact, in the interest of public health and safety, parts of the Park have just been officially closed, and all tourists and concessionaire employees have been ordered to evacuate the Park due to hazardous air quality from heavy smoke and the need to give suppression crews and vehicles free reign of the roads. But that is the extent of what is a short-term threat from smoke and suppression traffic. There definitely is disruption to the Park’s visitors, employees, and businesses in the nearby gateway communities, but there is no real danger that the Park itself will be “destroyed” by fire.
We would hope that the news media would have learned their lesson from the hype, hysteria, and fear they fomented during the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park, where journalists breathlessly reported that the Park was being “consumed” by “catastrophic” wildfires, and accused Park managers of borderline “criminal negligence” for its “let burn” policy. Since then, however, numerous scientific studies and thousands of tourists’ personal experiences have loudly disproven that sensationalist reporting.
A sea of colorful wildflowers and herds of elk and bison contentedly grazing in the green-up of fresh burns made the wildfire areas major tourist attractions, almost rivaling the Park’s geothermal wonders. Twenty years later, the dense forests of young lodgepole pines born from those flames bear witness to the falsity of those early media reports–an early example of “fake news” long before the term had come into being.
While the media is obsessed with the connection between the Ferguson Fire and Yosemite, the real drama and danger lies elsewhere, with the threat the fire poses to the small communities and scattered homes outside the Park that are woefully unprepared for wildfire. While an army of over 3000 firefighters has been assembled to fight the fire–scores of crews, hundreds of engines, dozens of dozers, and an air show of heavy helicopters and large airtankers–most of the “battlefield” is inaccessible to people and their land-based machines. The fire has been spreading mostly through steep, rugged canyons, thick with flammable vegetation and downed dead fuels. Every morning a thick inversion layer has put a cap on the fire, smoking in the fire and starving it of oxygen, but then in the afternoons when the inversion lifts, the fire makes its runs.
After a dozer operator tragically lost his life attempting direct attack, fire incident commanders have wisely backed off with indirect attack strategies that ensure the wildfire is going to grow big and burn long. Most likely, many crews are hurriedly preparing homesites in the rural communities for the oncoming fire, pruning trees and shrubs that abut house walls, sweeping thick mats of needles off rooftops, relocating firewood piles out from under wooden decks, and doing all the other things that rural residents should have done long ago before the first whiff of smoke in order to live safely and responsibly in a fire environment.
The Ferguson Fire is definitely a complex incident with much potential for additional tragedies in the future. The U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Regional Forester wisely ordered up some of the Forest Service’s best and brightest scientists and managers skilled with the latest tools and technology for assessing risk. These are the Risk Management Assistance Teams or RMATs. We hope this team will help incident commanders devise strategies and tactics that will provide the most opportunity for success in saving homes while limiting firefighter exposure. There are many things for fire managers and local residents to worry about, but the effects of the Ferguson Fire on Yosemite’s natural beauty is not one of them. The sooner the media breaks its fixation on Yosemite, and shifts its focus to the real risks being faced by firefighters and local residents, the better for us all.