‘State of emergency’ declared over Yosemite fire

By Lisa Fernandez, NBCBayArea.com

With the Rim Fire burning near Yosemite National Park at near lightning speeds, the number of evacuations grew on Thursday, as did the number of acres of forest – the size of the fire nearly tripled in a day’s time, sparking an urgent “state of emergency” plea.

Thursday afternoon, California Governor Jerry Brown issued an emergency proclamation for the Rim Fire in Tuolumne County.

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As of 2 p.m. Thursday,  the fire’s acreage in the Stanislaus National Forest stood at nearly 54,000 acres, or 84 square miles, up  from 16,000 acres, or 25 square miles, on Wednesday. In other words, the fire is now nearly twice the size of San Francisco.

Also, the containment dropped to 2 percent from 5 percent the day before, and the cost to date to fight it is $2.8 million.

Jessica Cannon of Oakland, who was supposed to have headed up to Camp Tawonga, five miles away from the fire,  worried for the camp property. The family camp she has attended for years canceled its program this weekend.

Photo credit: wildfiretoday.com

“It’s definitely in my mind,” Cannon said, referring to the camp she has attended for years. “It’s a beautiful place, I hope everything’s OK.”

Many who live closer to Tuolomne and Mariposa counties, where people have been asked to leave if they live too close to the fire, were praying firefighters would soon get a handle on the flames. The latest voluntary evacuations came Wednesday for the 2,800-person community of Pine Mountain Lake.

“I’m hoping it will stop,” said Robin Temple, who lives nearby. “My grandson is helping fight it.”

Others were trying to put the blaze – and living in the wilderness – in perspective.

“There are things that aren’t replacable, but that’s the way it is,”  John Ziomek of Groveland, Calif.,  told NBC Bay Area. “As long as you get out with your health.”

The city of San Francisco officially declared a State of Emergency due to the fire. City officials said the fire damaged power and communications assets owned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) as part of the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System.

The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park provides water to 2.6 million Bay Area residents and businesses, as well as hydroelectric power for City services.

Photo credit: SeattlePI.com

“This measure ensures we do everything we can to support those fighting this fire and protect city property,” San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said.

City officials said so far there are no impacts to water quality, water delivery, and water supply for the Bay Area.

It is seeking additional power supplies to replace any hydropower plants that have been knocked off line because of the fire.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors held an emergency meeting  saying in a resolution that the fire “is now directly threatening various communities and businesses within the County and is beyond our capabilities,” according to the Modesto Bee. 

In addition, 2,500 structures remain threatened because of the hot flames ripping through the tinder-like brush and oak and pine trees. Temperatures have been in the high 80s and low 90s, and the humidity has been about 50 to 60 percent.

Earlier this week, officials closed a four-mile stretch of  Highway 120 into Yosemite National Park, though the park itself remained opened.  Visitors could take a detour into the park using state Routes 140 and 4. Those closures were still in effect on Thursday.

On Tuesday, camps frequented by Bay Area residents such as Camp Tawonga, San Jose Family Camp, Berkeley Tuolumne Camp and San Francisco’s Mather Camp were also asked to evacuate and shut down their programs.

Why and how the fire started is still under investigation.

According to an incident command page,  the fire is a bear to fight. The terrain is “inaccessible” and steep, and the smoke within the deep drainage of the Clavey River is a cause of concern for firefighters. The fire is spreading up the Tuolumne River canyon.

More than 1,350 personnel – up from 900 on Wednesday – were braving the fire. Those include several units from the Bay Area, including firefighters from Berkeley, Redwood City, San Francisco, as well as crews from Alameda, Santa Clara, Marin and Contra Costa counties. Teams from the California National Guard’s 129th Rescue Wing from Moffett Field in Mountain View have also been dispatched to help.

The fire was among the nation’s top firefighting priorities, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Fifty-one major uncontained wildfires are burning throughout the West, according to the center, including in California, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. More than 19,000 firefighters were fighting the fires.

But the U.S. Forest Service, the nation’s top wildfire-fighting agency, said Wednesday that it is running out of money to fight wildfires and is diverting $600 million from timber, recreation and other areas to fill the gap. The agency said it had spent $967 million so far this year and was down to $50 million – typically enough to pay for just a few days of fighting fires when the nation is at its top wildfire preparedness level, which went into effect Tuesday.

There have been more than 32,000 fires this year that have burned more than 5,300 square miles.

On Wednesday, the National Interagency Fire Center listed two fires in Montana as the nation’s number one priority.

At least 19 other notable fires were burning across the state, leading Montana Gov. Steve Bullock to declare a state of emergency, which allows the use of National Guard resources ranging from personnel to helicopters.

In Oregon, a fire in the Columbia Gorge about 10 miles southwest of The Dalles grew to 13 square miles, forcing evacuations and burning a third home. The fire was 15 percent contained. Strong winds continued to fan the blaze, pushing it into the Mount Hood National Forest.

Firefighters in southwestern Oregon braced for a return of lightning storms that started a series of fires last month that continue to burn in rugged timberlands.

In Idaho, progress was reported in the fight against the nearly 169-square-mile Beaver Creek fire, which forced the evacuation of 1,250 homes in the resort area of Ketchum and Sun Valley. That fire was 47 percent contained, authorities said.

In Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, officials reopened a 7-mile section of road closed briefly by a wildfire. As of Wednesday, the Alum Fire had burned about 12 square miles and was spreading slowly, leading park officials to make preliminary evacuation plans for a community on the shore of Yellowstone Lake.

NBC Bay Area’s Kris Sanchez and Christie Smith, along with AP writers Gozia Wozniacki, Jeff Barnard in Grants Pass, Ore., Matt Volz in Helena, Mont., and Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyo. contributed to this report.