TBT: Fire effects in Yosemite NP, 1897

For Throwback Thursday we’re throwing WAY back, to 1897. This photo shows Yosemite National Park Superintendent Capt. Alex Rogers standing next to a fire-scarred tree near Tioga Road in September, 1897.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Firefighters battling South Fork Fire east of Wawona, California

Above: South Fork Fire. Inciweb.

(Originally published at 11:38 a.m. PDT August 15, 2017)

The main priority of firefighters battling the South Fork Fire in Yosemite National Park in California is protecting homes in the North Wawona community 1.7 miles west of the fire along the South Fork of the Merced River.

Not much information is available about the fire 56 hours after it was reported very early Sunday morning, but we know that it is burning above the river on steep, rocky slopes in a forested area with beetle-killed trees. While a fire burning through dead trees sounds scary, after the needles fall off, the trees burn with less intensity and rate of spread than a healthy forest.

According to the South Zone Coordination Center, voluntary evacuations are in effect for Wawona on the east side of Chilnaulna Falls Ridge.

Our very unofficial estimate based on satellite data from 3:43 a.m. PDT Tuesday puts it at approximately 2,000 acres. The last official figure from the Incident Management Team was 1,613 acres at 7 p.m. Monday.

map South Fork Fire
3-D map of the South Fork Fire. Estimated perimeter (in red) based on satellite data from 3:43 a.m. PDT August 15, 2017.

Deron Mills’ Type 2 Incident Management Team is transitioning into the management structure of the fire today, Tuesday.

The weather forecast for the fire area for Tuesday calls for sunny skies, 75 to 80 degrees, relative humidity in the mid-30s, and very light winds on the slopes in the morning increasing to 10 mph on the ridgetops in the afternoon.

The South Fork Fire and others in California are contributing to unhealthy air quality in many areas.

visibility in Yosemite National Park El Capitan
The visibility in Yosemite National Park at El Capitan, 12:02 p.m. PDT August 15, 2017.
pm25 air quality california wildfire
The forecast for the maximum levels of wildfire particulate matter (PM 2.5) for August 15, 2017 in Central California. Experimental product by U.S. Forest Service/BlueSky.

2 fires in Yosemite National Park, Empire and South Fork

Above: Satellite photo of the South Fork and Empire Fires in Yosemite National Park, August 14, 2017.

(Originally published at 3:40 a.m. PDT August 14, 2017)

Two large fires are burning in Yosemite National Park. The Empire Fire started two weeks ago and is being monitored but not completely suppressed. It has spread across 1,200 acres one mile south of Bridalveil Campground in Yosemite’s Wilderness.

The first report of the South Fork Fire came in at 2:30 a.m. Sunday, August 13 near the South Fork of the Merced River 2.6 miles east of Wawona.

South Fork Fire
South Fork Fire. Posted on InciWeb August 14, 2017.

It has burned approximately 1,000 acres. Smoke has prevented the use of air tankers at times, but there is a report that all three of the military MAFFS aircraft currently activated have dropped on the fire when the smoke has cleared.

A Type 2 Incident Management Team has been ordered.

South Fork Fire map empire
3-D map of the South Fork and Empire Fires in Yosemite National Park, August 14, 2017.

Wildfire smoke travels farther south into the United States

Wildfire smoke
Wildfire smoke at 1:20 a.m. MDT August 14, 2017. NOAA.

While sleeping with the windows open I woke up at 2 a.m. Monday morning with the strong smell of forest fire smoke in the house. I checked NOAA’s smoke map on my phone and sure enough there it was, in several shades of brown. Oddly, in spite of the strong smell, it is barely registering at the nearest air quality monitoring site.

Canadian smoke does not often drift this far south into the Black Hills of South Dakota in high enough concentrations to have a strong odor.

Wildfires air quality
Wildfires and air quality, at 2 a.m. MDT August 14, 2017

air quality legendBut it is much, much worse in some areas. I have friends that basically evacuated from Missoula at least temporarily because of the smoke, where Saturday the air was “very unhealthy”. And this morning in Calgary, Alberta the PM2.5 is 234, also “very unhealthy”.

And, thanks to the South Fork Fire that started Sunday 1.5 miles east of the community of Wawona in Yosemite National Park and the Empire Fire that has been burning in that area since August 1, it is “unhealthy” to breathe in Yosemite Valley where the PM2.5 is 154. The Empire Fire is not being suppressed so the smoky conditions could persist for an extended period of time. The South Fork Fire is a suppression fire.

Fire studies at Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks

Above: A bison in Yellowstone National Park, May 25, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Two recent and ongoing studies at the two big “Y” parks are yielding results about fire behavior and the effects of naturally occurring fire. The excerpts below are both from Phys.org.

The first is about allowing wildfires to burn at Yosemite National Park, rather than suppressing them:

An unprecedented 40-year experiment in a 40,000-acre valley of Yosemite National Park strongly supports the idea that managing fire, rather than suppressing it, makes wilderness areas more resilient to fire, with the added benefit of increased water availability and resistance to drought.

After a three-year, on-the-ground assessment of the park’s Illilouette Creek basin, University of California, Berkeley researchers concluded that a strategy dating to 1973 of managing wildfires with minimal suppression and almost no preemptive, so-called prescribed burns has created a landscape more resistant to catastrophic fire, with more diverse vegetation and forest structure and increased water storage, mostly in the form of meadows in areas cleared by fires.

“When fire is not suppressed, you get all these benefits: increased stream flow, increased downstream water availability, increased soil moisture, which improves habitat for the plants within the watershed. And it increases the drought resistance of the remaining trees and also increases the fire resilience because you have created these natural firebreaks,” said Gabrielle Boisramé, a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and first author of the study…

The next article covers a study into the fire behavior of this summer’s fires that spread through the footprints of the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park.

…”Largely up until this point, fire has not necessarily carried well through the ’88 fire scars,” Yellowstone fire ecologist Becky Smith said. “I mean, it definitely has before, but it usually takes very specific conditions, like high winds or a very specific fuel bed. But this year, we’re definitely seeing it burn much more readily in the ’88 fire scars.”

The park has called in a special federal team that studies fire behavior to find out why.

“We’re trying to use it as a good learning opportunity to try and really narrow our focus on how and when the ’88 fire scars will burn,” Smith said. The 1988 wildfires burned 36 percent of the park.

It’s the first time Yellowstone has used the special team’s services, she said.

The 13-member team is studying two fires burning in the 1988 fire scar. It has deployed special heat-resistant equipment with sensors, cameras and other instruments to measure things like temperature and wind where the fires are burning…

Wife of embattled former Yosemite NP Superintendent to retire

Another domino has fallen in the Yosemite National Park scandal. The wife of former Park Superintendent Don Neubacher announced her retirement Sunday in an email to employees. Patty Neubacher, one of three Deputy Regional Directors for the National Park Service’s Pacific West Region, said she will be retiring on November 1.

Patty Neubacher
Patty Neubacher. NPS photo.

During a September 22 congressional hearing it was revealed that 20 employees in Yosemite described the park as a hostile work environment as a result of the behavior and conduct of the park Superintendent, Mr. Neubacher. Some employees alleged that Ms. Neubacher had used her position to protect the superintendent, who is supervised by the Pacific West Regional office.

On September 28 Mr. Neubacher sent an email message to all employees in the park announcing his retirement. He explained that in a discussion with the Regional Director “it was determined that new leadership was needed” in the park. He said he was offered a position in Denver serving as a “Senior Advisor to Michael Reynolds, Deputy Director for the National Park Service”, but that since his home was in California he opted to retire. He will be on leave until the retirement is effective November 1, 2016 — the same date his wife’s retirement will take effect.

Ms. Neubacher’s October 2 email read in part:

“This is not the timing that I’d ever envisioned for retiring, but sometimes life takes an abrupt turn.”

A person with inside knowledge of the situation at Yosemite National Park told us that within the next few weeks there will be more revelations about misconduct at the park.