Two wildfires in Yosemite National Park are being managed without the intent to stop the spread. They are being allowed to replicate natural processes, restoring fire to the landscape.
It is a little too far out to predict with much certainty, but possibly by the first half of next week around September 4 or 5, temperatures much higher than average for the date could impact large sections of the Western United States. If it is accompanied by low humidity and strong winds there could be a significant increase in the spread of existing wildfires. We won’t get too excited about it now, but the situation bears watching as the forecasts become more certain.
Perhaps with that medium-range forecast in mind, or it could be unrelated, fire managers at Yosemite are taking steps to modify the spread of two fires. Both of them have large swaths of granite out in front, but the rock does not present a 100 percent impenetrable barrier. However under less than extreme conditions the granite would at least greatly slow the spread of the fires.
The Red Fire is in the southern part of Yosemite near Grey Peak and was mapped at 1,833 acres Saturday evening. The spread has been minimal in recent days as it chews through pockets of dead and and down vegetation. The plan is to use crews and hoselays to keep the fire south and east of the trail system and hold the fire from moving further into the Illilouette basin, which would result in increased smoke impacts to Yosemite Valley.
The Rogers Fire, 10 miles east of Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir had burned 1,370 acres when it was mapped the morning of August 27. Fire managers intend to use helicopters to drop water in order to slow spread to the northeast. This is intended to enable hand crews to construct fire line between granite slabs. The next step is not specified, but depending on the intensity of the fire, which has been low, the line might stop the fire, or provide an anchor from which to start a backburn or backfire.
The Red Fire in Yosemite National Park in California has burned 416 acres since it started from a lightning strike on August 4, according to a mapping flight Monday morning. It is in a remote and rugged section of the park about 12 miles northeast of Wawona and the Washburn Fire which burned nearly 5,000 acres very close to the Mariposa grove of giant sequoias in July.
The national Situation Report Monday morning showed a small group of resources assigned — five people with one fire engine. They are being led by Jenn Anderson, a Type 4 Incident Commander.
The crew is assessing natural barriers, such as granite, to confine and contain the fire, rather than fully suppress the blaze. There are no trail closures or threats to infrastructure.
It is very close to the Mariposa/Madera County line and about five miles from the park boundary. So far the fire has been burning at about 8,300 feet above sea level, mostly in the footprint of the 2001 Hoover Fire. If it spreads further to the east it will leave that fire scar and move into an area with no fire history within the last 30 years, but there is a great deal of granite in that direction. (see the 3-D map at the top of the article) There are no giant sequoia groves within several miles of the fire, which was a major concern during last month’s Washburn Fire.
A satellite flyover at 1:38 p.m. PDT Monday detected only a few large heat sources, all on the east half of the fire. There are no doubt many smaller burning areas that could not be detected by the sensors orbiting hundreds of miles above the Earth.
From the National Park Service, Yosemite National Park, August 12, 2022:
“We are sad to report that pioneering Yosemite scientist Jan van Wagtendonk died on July 15, 2022.
“Jan was a Yosemite and National Park Service legend: an accomplished scientist, a preeminent fire ecologist, a wilderness advocate, and a beloved colleague. He was an innovative wilderness manager, coming up with the trailhead quota system that we still use today to protect wilderness while ensuring that hikers are free to enjoy that wilderness on their own terms. His impact affects fire policy to this day as one of the authors of the first federal fire policy in 1995. Jan possessed an amazing intellect, deep humility, a sharp wit, and a profound love of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada.
“Jan was a strong advocate for returning fire to the Sierra landscape. His pioneering use of prescribed fire in the early 1970s in and around the Mariposa Grove started us on the path to reestablishing an ecological balance lost in over 100 years of fire suppression. There is poetry, in the words of Jan’s son Kent, that in Jan’s final days the fruits of those efforts had a direct and dramatic effect in saving the Mariposa Grove from the Washburn Fire, which started just outside of the grove.
“Our heartfelt condolences go to Jan’s family and wide circle of friends and colleagues. He was one of a kind, and will be deeply missed.”
The article below from the US Geological Survey was originally written in 2020, based on an interview with Jan van Wagtendonk in 2019:
The first thing to know about emeritus scientist Jan van Wagtendonk is that he loves trees—always has and always will. As a kid, he looked at trees, inventoried trees, wrote a report on trees. One of his neighbors as a kid described young Jan by saying “I never saw him inside.”
He was a forest scientist before he even knew that was a thing you could be.
At age 13, van Wagtendonk was on two-months long family camping trip when he met a forest ranger. Upon realizing that he, too, could work with trees for a living, van Wagtendonk decided to become a forester. Several years later, he entered the forestry school at Purdue University in Indiana.
One day in college, van Wagtendonk found a listing on a campus bulletin board for a summer job on a wildland firefighting crew in Oregon. He applied, got the job, and headed West. It was his first experience with wildfire, the subject that would become his life’s work. Unsurprisingly, he loved Oregon—it had great trees—and ended up transferring to Oregon State University. He would spend several summers on fire crews in Oregon and then Alaska, first mopping up the final embers of wildfires and later working as a smoke jumper. The job was to put the fires out. Years later, his job became more about the opposite—reintroducing fire to Western forests.
Van Wagtendonk claims he “had no inkling about fire ecology at all” at the time, but he thinks that several experiences he had during his smoke jumping days may have shaped his thinking as a forest scientist and led him to fire ecology. In one instance, he was assigned to a put out a fire in a remote part of Alaskan tundra. The landscape was dotted with bird nests. The flames were about two inches high, and the fire crept along at about a foot per minute. Van Wagtendonk was struck by the birds’ seemingly nonchalant reaction to the fire: “the fire would be coming, they’d go up like this”—he mimes a bird flapping its wings and rising into the air a few inches as he tells this story— “fire’d go by, and they’d go right back on the nest.”
Many wildfires, he found, were not destructive. They burned slowly, part of the landscape.
After graduating from Oregon State University, van Wagtendonk served in the army as an officer in the 101st Airborne Division and as an advisor to the Vietnamese army. But after four and a half years, he was ready to move on and applied for graduate school, eventually ending up studying fire ecology under Dr. Harold Biswell at UC Berkeley.
Bringing Fire Back to the Forest
Van Wagtendonk began his study of fire ecology just as it was coming into its own as a field and taking forestry by storm. When van Wagtendonk was an undergraduate forestry major, fire ecology was only obliquely mentioned.
At the time, he says, “fire had not been truly accepted as an academic discipline, certainly not something you tell people you’ll set.”
Biswell, van Wagtendonk’s graduate school mentor, was something of an outlier. Biswell would conduct prescribed burns and then take students, scientists, ranchers, land managers, and interested citizens out into the field and show them what he was doing.
Those efforts paid off. By 1968, the year that van Wagtendonk began his doctoral dissertation, lessons from fire ecology were starting to reshape federal fire management policy. The National Park Service, in particular, began incorporating prescribed fire programs in recognition of the ecological role of wildfire; other agencies followed suit in the decade that followed.
Van Wagtendonk’s dissertation research played a major role in this transition. Biswell’s guidance for prescribed burning was based on experience.
“He could go out in the woods and snap a twig and say, okay it’s ready to burn,” as van Wagtendonk tells it. That method wouldn’t do if prescribed burning was to be adopted more broadly. For his dissertation, van Wagtendonk set out to quantify Biswell’s prescriptions. Van Wagtendonk conducted his work at Yosemite National Park after being turned down by the Forest Service. The result? A set of guidelines for prescribed burning that are still in use in Yosemite today.
From Wilderness Management to Megafires: A Career at Yosemite
Soon afterwards, van Wagtendonk was offered a job at Yosemite—and 48 years later, he’s still there, first as an employee and now as an emeritus. The decades have brought changes—to fire ecology, to the park, and to federal government science–and lots of fascinating research about fires, forests, and the way people engage with wild places.
In the 90s, van Wagtendonk moved from the National Park Service to the USGS along with many other federal scientists, keeping his home base at Yosemite. He was among the original scientists of the USGS Western Ecological Research Center that served on the founding Science Council under its first Director, Anne Kinsinger, who is currently the USGS Associate Director for Ecosystems. That Council helped form the Center into the outstanding scientific institution that it is today.
Van Wagtendonk’s research over the years has touched on many aspects of fire science. He has developed methods for mapping fuel types, assessed the effects of fire suppression and fuel treatments like prescribed fire, analyzed patterns of lightning strikes, and studied the influence of fire on owls and small mammals. Over the years, van Wagtendonk has incorporated new technology and methods to the study of fire and wilderness, including GIS, remote sensing, and computer modeling, not only using these tools but also publishing highly-cited guidance on using these tools for fire science.
Van Wagtendonk’s work hasn’t been limited to fire research. Early on in his time at Yosemite, he began to study recreation in the park, especially in its backcountry wilderness areas. Backcountry had increased drastically in the 1960s and ‘70s. Van Wagtendonk described the changes in a 1981 paper, writing that in 1972, managers found trampled vegetation, eroded trails, and up to 200 people camped at popular sites. In the 1970s, the park implemented mandatory permit and quota systems for backcountry use that were informed by van Wagtendonk’s research.
Van Wagtendonk has witnessed Yosemite and fire science shift over the decades. In several publications, he’s traced the history of fire policy and management in Yosemite and beyond. Visitor numbers have skyrocketed at Yosemite, and larger wildfires burn in California as the climate warms. In the past two decades, his research has given more attention to today’s megafires and climate change. There’s still a lot to learn about the future of fire.
It can take a long time for new science to really shape management on the ground, but van Wagtendonk marvels at how far we have come, and how much the still-young field of fire ecology has influenced policy already.
“It has been very gratifying to see my work actually be used in park management and beyond,” he says.
Van Wagtendonk has been in Yosemite for 48 years, and still can’t get enough of it. When he’s not working on his writing and research, he loves to hike and backpack the trails.
“I’ve hiked every trail in the park,” he says. “I’ve been backpacking every summer. . . I’m at the point where I’m going back to places I’ve liked the most . . .but I want to be able to keep doing that as long as I can, do it now before my legs give out.”
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jim, Gerald, and Kelly.
The challenge remaining on the 4,759-acre Washburn Fire in Yosemite National Park is to corral the east side where it has spread into the Sierra National Forest, a very steep area with large rock outcroppings.
They have established three helispots on the north side of the South Fork of the Merced River and one on the south side that could be used for inserting firefighters. Their plan is to insert a small group of hotshots on the east side of the fire south of the river at Helispot 5 on the map below, being pointed to by Planning Operations Section Chief Matt Ahern. Their task will be to construct fire line on that corner, west of Iron Creek, working downhill and uphill to anchor and stabilize the fire at that point. This would then enable hotshot crews to “come off the top”, said Mr. Ahern.
Contingency fire lines are being constructed some distance from the fire on the south and east sides in case extreme weather drives the fire in those directions.
The Buck Cabin east of the fire built in 1931, was recently rehabilitated at great expense. The wood shake shingle roof was replaced with — another wood shake shingle roof. Since it is very, very vulnerable to fire, and in a roadless area, firefighters will be flown by helicopter to the area, rappel to the ground, and wrap it in foil-based structure wrap.
Most of the fire edge near the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias has been secured with fire line, Mr. Ahern said.
“Overall the incident is in a very good place,” said Mr. Ahern. “We still have a tremendous amount of work and a heavy commitment of hotshot crews and aerial resources to pinch off Iron Creek.”
The infrared video below shot at 10:39 p.m. July 14 shows the east side of the fire.
Threatens 3,000-year-old giant sequoia trees in Yosemite National Park
Updated 5:00 p.m. PDT July 13, 2022
The Washburn fire in Yosemite National Park has kicked up Wednesday afternoon like it has every afternoon since it started July 7.
Helicopters have been assisting ground-based firefighters on the east side of the fire today, but due to spot fires and increased fire activity in the afternoon they called in two large and one very large air tanker to slow the spread.
A community meeting about the fire will be streamed live on Facebook at 7 p.m PDT on July 14.
The FIRIS aircraft shot video of the fire earlier today:
Most of the fire activity on the Washburn Fire over the last 24 hours has been on the east side where it has burned out of Yosemite National Park and into the Sierra National Forest. So far crews have been able to suppress all of the spot fires on the north side that crossed the South Fork of the Merced River and ignited the five-year-old vegetation in the footprint of the 2017 South Fork Fire.
The incident management team is evaluating the feasibility of building a fireline on the east side between Raymond Mountain and the river in order to stop the movement beyond that point.
On a flight at 10:45 p.m. an infrared line-scanning aircraft mapped the fire. An infrared analyst interpreted the data and found that it had burned 3,772 acres.
Below, another aircraft using a different system, FIRIS, reported it was 3,843 acres at 10:06 p.m. July 12. Their infrared video, looking east, is below.
Fire crews are making progress on the Washburn Fire in Yosemite National Park — the south and west sides are starting to look more secure. At 12:53 p.m. Tuesday it was mapped at 3,516 acres.
Approximately 340 acres of the blaze is within the Mariposa grove of giant sequoias, some of which are close to 3,000 years old. The more than 500 mature giant sequoias are adjacent to heavy fuels and have so far avoided serious damage from the fire, the National Park Service reported Tuesday.
On Monday, firefighters suppressed about 15 spot fires on the west side of the fire that were across Highway 41. They now have a fire line around the Wawona community and have structure defense equipment in place.
On the northeast side the line is complete from the highway down to the South Fork of the Merced River and around the community. On the north side the fire has reached the river in most places and crews are putting out spot fires as they occur across the river in the fire scar from the 2017 South Fork Fire.
The east side continues to spread. Firefighters assisted by air tankers have constructed fire line along the ridge east of Wawona Point and so far that is holding. About a mile to the east hotshot crews are evaluating the feasibility of building a fireline between Raymond Mountain and the river in order to arrest the movement beyond that point.
Yosemite Superintendent Cicely Muldoon said the fire was caused by humans.
“As you all know there was no lightning on that day so it is a human start,” Muldoon said Monday night. “It’s under investigation. That’s all I can say about that right now. We’re looking at that really hard.”
The weather for this week will continue to be warm and dry due to a strengthening high pressure system. Winds should remain light to moderate and mostly terrain driven. Temperatures will reach the low-90s and relative humidity will be in the 20-30 percent range.
Yesterday July 9 a lead plane and a large air tanker had a close call while on a retardant dropping sortie on the Washburn Fire in Yosemite National Park.
There was virtually no wind over the fire most of the day and the area was smoked in causing very poor visibility making it impossible for air tankers to drop on the fire. But by 6 p.m. conditions had improved and at about 6:10 p.m. a lead plane was leading Tanker 103, an MD-87, over a target when they saw a falling tree branch above the lead plane. It fell between the two aircraft, in front of the tanker.
Twitter user Robert, @Rob_on_sisukas, captured an audio recording of the radio conversation. We’re not sure who the lead plane pilot was talking to, but we’ll call it “dispatcher” for now:
LEAD PLANE: Hey I just want to let you know that a branch went right over the top of us, pretty good size, probably 50 feet above us coming down and fell right in between Tanker 103 and myself.
DISPATCHER: OK. Copy. So it’s repeat of yesterday’s (unintelligible)
LEAD PLANE: That’s exactly what I’m getting at. So if we keep seeing that we might have to knock it off. I don’t want to take a chance on busting a window in an airplane or hurting an aircraft for this.
DISPATCHER: Absolutely. Keep me updated on this.
#WashburnFire interesting little chat. Near miss with a tree branch and Air Attack and Tanker 103. As civilians, we just see planes dropping loads. But listen to this choreography that goes on behind the scenes of fire. pic.twitter.com/Dn2CcTZ7qV
When a fire is burning intensely in an unstable atmosphere the convection in the rising smoke column can be powered by a tremendous amount of energy. As air at ground level rushes in to take the place of the rising column, the developing horizontal wind and the fresh oxygen feed the fire, causing an even higher level of intensity. The horizontal and then vertical movement of air can sometimes transport unexpectedly large objects up into the sky. Large columns may rotate as they rise and in extreme cases can actually become a fire tornado. You don’t want to be nearby when that happens. Fire tornados are not to be confused with small dust devils or fire whirls.
What is surprising about the incident yesterday is that the fire was smoked in most of the day, and tankers could not fly until about 6 p.m. I looked at various AlertWildfire cameras a few times and did not see any smoke columns. Maybe the cameras I saw were not able to see all of the fire, but I remember that late in the afternoon fire activity increased at the Sierra Fire Watch camera below, and columns may have developed.
Firefighting aircraft being damaged by debris being lofted into the air over a fire is not unheard of. Here’s part of an article I wrote for Wildfire Today in 2018:
During the large vegetation fires in southern California in 2003 some of the convection columns were so powerful that the windshields on six air tankers were cracked by chunks of debris that were being hurled into the air (page D-6 in 2003 California Governor’s Blue Ribbon Report; huge 20 Mb file). One pilot saw a four by eight sheet of plywood sail past at 1,500 feet.
As of late morning today, July 10, the Washburn Fire has burned about 1,800 acres in Yosemite National Park. About 300 of those acres are in the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees, some of them 3,000 years old.