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

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.

After Fire Chief’s testimony, Yosemite’s Superintendent is forced out

He was given the option of transferring from Yosemite National Park to Denver, but decided to retire.

A week after the congressional hearing that included numerous examples of a hostile work environment at Yosemite National Park in California, the Superintendent of the park has been forced out of the park.

According to an email Superintendent Don Neubacher sent to all employees in the park at about 7 p.m. on September 28, during 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 since his home was in California he opted to retire. He will be on leave until the retirement is effective on November 1, 2016.

During the September 22 Congressional hearing it was revealed that at least 20 employees in Yosemite described the park as a hostile work environment as a result of the behavior and conduct of the park Superintendent.

Kelly Martin, the Chief of Fire and Aviation Management at Yosemite, was one of two current National Park Service employees categorized as whistleblowers that testified in the hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The topic of the hearing was “misconduct and mismanagement in the National Park Service”.

She described three of her experiences with sexual harassment that occurred in the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service before she worked at Yosemite. In her oral and written testimony she also provided examples of incidents at Yosemite in which Superintendent Neubacher created or contributed to a hostile work environment.

We interviewed Chief Martin on September 30, and she wanted to make it clear that she was speaking a private citizen, was not a spokesperson for the NPS, and is not aware of any sexual harassment claims at Yosemite. She said that after the hearing some headlines reported sexual harassment at Yosemite, but the only allegations that came up in the hearing about Yosemite were regarding a hostile work environment. However several examples of sexual harassment were alleged at Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks.

She said that dozens of people have reached out to her after learning what she did before Congress.

We asked her about what else has happened since her testimony:

The thing that is surprising is that post my testimony our Regional and National offices, our leadership in the Park Service, is taking the allegations of the hostile work environment complaints seriously. They have also dispatched the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General to complete additional interviews. It sounds as if, I don’t know this for sure, that additional people are willing to come forward based upon my testimony, but they still fear retaliation.

There are a lot of women, and men too, that sent me emails thanking me for being so brave in coming forward addressing these issues. Women in particular … have not felt they’ve been able to come forward.

Nationwide people from all agencies, people I don’t even know, were responding, thanking me for my testimony. They have experienced very similar situations but never had the opportunity or the feeling that they could have come forward without fear of retaliation.

Hopefully it will spur some additional conversations with folks that watch your blog. Have we created hostile environments for women and minorities in our wildland fire communities? What are some good examples of some crews that are really integrated and have included women in their organization, and how difficult is it for them to get assignments and work their way up through the ranks? There’s the potential for a lot of really good topics out there. I think you’re the one to help with that.

Photos of Tenaya Fire in Yosemite NP shortly after it started

Tenaya Fire in Yosemite National Park
Tenaya Fire in Yosemite National Park, September 7, 2015. Photo by Mark Meyer.

Mark Meyer took these photos of the Tenaya Fire shortly after it started during the evening of September 7, 2015 in Yosemite National Park. The fire eventually burned 415 acres before it was contained. It was located between Yosemite Valley and Tioga Road (Highway 120) along both sides of the Lehamite Creek Trail.

Tenaya Fire in Yosemite National Park
Tenaya Fire in Yosemite National Park, September 7, 2015. Photo by Mark Meyer.

Our main article about the Tenaya Fire.

The spread of the Tenaya Fire above Yosemite Valley slows

(UPDATE at 10:12 a.m. PT, September 10, 2015)

The Tenaya Fire in Yosemite National Park in California slowed on Wednesday due to the efforts of aviation assets and troops on the ground. In fact the mapped size of 431 acres is a decrease from the estimated 500-acre figure the park released earlier.

The park reports that firefighter efforts at the heel of the fire are holding and good progress is being made on the flanks.

The NPS says this is a “suppression fire” even though three other fires in the park, all currently less than 50 acres, are not being fully suppressed. A Wednesday evening statement from the park said:

Although the use air tankers were initially discouraged, the use of retardant was necessary due to active and rapid rate of fire spread. Key reasons include firefighter and visitor safety, and risks to and closing the Tioga Road, negatively affecting the local communities that rely on park visitation, including the communities include Lee Vining, Mammoth Lakes, Groveland and Mariposa.

Map Tenaya Fire 9-9-15
Map of the Tenaya Fire, Sept 9, 2015. NPS.


(Originally published at 7:47 a.m. PT, September 9, 2015)

Tenaya Fire
Tenaya Fire, September 8, 2015. NPS photo.

The Tenaya Fire started September 7 in California’s Yosemite National Park between Yosemite Valley and Tioga Road (Highway 120). It is burning along both sides of the Lehamite Creek Trail from the north rim of the Valley to Tioga Road. (See the map below.)

The Park Service reports that full suppression efforts began on September 8 which included approximately 60 firefighters, six air tankers, and three helicopters. Additional resources will arrive on the fire September 9.

map of Tenaya Fire
3-D map of Tenaya Fire, showing heat detected by a satellite at 1:47 a.m. September 9, 2015. Looking northwest. (Click to enlarge.)

No structures are currently threatened and as of Tuesday night there was no containment on the fire. The cause is under investigation.

Video explores the 2013 Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park

Firefighter and a Giant Sequoia
Firefighter and a fire-scarred Giant Sequoia. Still image from the NPS video.

We are pleased to see that some federal agencies, especially the National Park Service, are producing professional-quality films that interpret for the general public the science of wildland fire. We have written previously about successful video projects produced by Everglades National Park, and now Yosemite National Park has released their second film about the science of the 2013 Rim Fire that burned 254,685 acres in and near the Park. Their first one featured Fire Ecologist Gus Smith, and a second with the inspired title of “Rim Fire” was uploaded today on YouTube. It is embedded below and emphasizes the importance of reintroducing fire into the forest while treating your eyes to excellent photography.