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‘That Is Unreal': Yosemite’s Massive Rim Fire
The blaze threatening San Francisco’s power and water is the kind of threat that ecologists expect more of as the West gets hotter and drier.

Several weeks ago, a fire erupted in California's pristine and wild Stanislaus National Forest, about 150 miles east of San Francisco, close to Yosemite National Park. The cause is still unknown, but by August 19 the blaze, known as the Rim Fire, was doubling in size every day. By Tuesday it had reached 180,000 acres, bigger than the city of Chicago and one of the seven-largest fires in California history.

Some 3,700 firefighters have battled the blaze with 460 fire engines, 60 bulldozers, and 15 helicopters. Yet it's still growing. Watch this video from the California National Guard—“That is unreal,” one pilot says as the fire comes into sight—to see the firefighting effort in action:

The Rim Fire is exactly the kind of bigger, badder blaze that forest ecologists predict in an era of climate change-driven droughts, combined with overdevelopment in fire-prone areas and decades of poor forest management (see “Climate Change Fuels the Perfect Firestorm”). Last year, during what became the most destructive wildfire season in U.S. history, OnEarth published a 10-part series on these threats and their potential impact on the West (and East). Fire season now lasts two months longer and destroys twice as much land as it did 40 years ago, U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell told Congress recently. The Rim Fire is just the latest example of what Western communities can expect to face in the years to come.

As our partners at Mother Jones have reported, the steep, remote topography of western Yosemite is making it difficult for firefighters to battle the blaze. Over the weekend, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for San Francisco because the city gets over 80 percent of its water from a reservoir near the fire zone, and the infrastructure to transport water to the city could be damaged. The state also shut down two of three hydroelectric stations that provide electricity for basic city services, including the airport, fire department, and hospitals. The city has instead had to buy its energy on the market instead, spending $600,000 so far.

Mother Jones produced this Google Earth-powered bird's-eye view of the areas that are threatened by the fire, which threatens 4,500 human-built structures:

Credits: Virtual tour produced by Brett Brownwell, Kiera Butler, and Maggie Severns

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