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For the past week, we’ve been receiving several emails each day from HSW alumni as well as upcoming workshop participants, worried about the status of Yosemite as well as some perspective on the Rim Fire that is threatening areas of the park.

Yosemite National Park is one of the cornerstones of High Sierra Workshops. While it is the location for several of our workshops, including our Winter and Spring offerings as well as our upcoming Advanced Photography course, it is also where HSW started back in 1992, when HSW founder Michael Mariant began leading photography students to the incomparable Yosemite Valley.

[imageeffect type=”none” align=”alignright” lightbox=”yes” width=”272″ height=”408″ alt=”” url=”/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/RimFire_verticaltreeburning.jpg” ]As an authorized permit holder for workshops and tours in Yosemite, we receive daily email updates from the park spokesperson regarding the status of the Rim Fire and it’s effects on the park. In light of the increasing queries from HSW alumni and future participants, we thought it would be best to provide as comprehensive as possible round-up as to the status of the fire. We will also provide links to web resources where you can follow the the fire’s status, if you desire.


UPDATE: As of today, August 26, at 3:40pm, August 27, August 28 August 30 the Rim Fire has burned a total of just over 150,000 165,000 188,000 200,000 acres, or over 235 255 281 312 square miles, since the fire started on Saturday, Aug. 17. The fire currently has 15% 20% 23% 32% containment. Fire officials predict that the fire will be fully contained, but still burning within the containment, by September 20. With a fire this large, it is expected to not be fully extinguished until the winter rains and snows snuff it out.

It has been 17 years since this area of northern Yosemite and surrounding forest lands last were burned in a fire. The first few days of the fire were explosive, with the growth of the fire doubling each day.

The fire is located to the northwest of Yosemite National Park, north of Highway 120, which is one of the entrances to the park and is currently closed. At this time, while there are closures in areas of the park to the north, Yosemite Valley is not affected by the fire at all, both in fire danger and air quality.

UPDATE: According the unified command of the U.S. Forest Service and CalFire:

“Very active fire behavior into the late evening and continued active fire behavior overnight. Torching and passive crowning with considerable amounts of spotting. Moderate fire behavior with backing fire observedd where fire was burning from ridgetops downslope.

Burnout operations continued overnight in the southeastern area of the fire. Fire crews continued construction of fire line along 3N01 Road to stop fire spread to the north. Structure defense continues in Pinecrest, Mi-Wuk Vilalge, Confidence, Cold Springs, and Hodgdon Meadow, and Big Oak Flat in Yosemite National Park. Today’s plans are to continue the burnout in the Yosemite National Park south of Hetch Hetchy. If conditions allow, the Duckwall Mountain north of Fahey Meadow burnout will start. Air operations will support all firefighting efforts as needed.

Mandatory evacuations continue South of HWY 120 on the south eastern edge of the fire and towards Yosemite National Park North of the Old Yosemite Road. Closure of Tioga Road West of Yosemite Creek Picnic Area. Structure defense around Aspen Valley by ground and aerial resources was occurring in the afternoon. Evacuation advisories in Tuolumne City, Soulsbyville, and Willow Springs were lifted today. The evacuation advisory remains in effect for Ponderosa Hills and areas east, along the south side of Highway 108 up to Pinecrest. A Forest Closure is in effect for locations near, and in, advance of the fire. Several locations on the west side of Yosemite National Park have had closures implemented as a result of the fires spread. Contingency planning, indirect line construction and preparation to the east of Highway 108. Access and difficult terrain remain concerns for crews and equipment. Burnout operations were initiated South of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir inside Yosemite National Park. Burnout operations were completed between Big Oak Station to Hazel Green Ranch. Burnout operations were initiated between Hells Mountain to Clavey Meadow.”

UDPATE: The unified command’s planned activity for the fire:

“Burnout operations will continue South of HWY 120 on the southeastern edge of the fire from Pilot Ridge to Big Oak Flat Entrance Station. Continued direct and indirect line construction will take place, accompanied by burnout operations where accessibility and safety allow along the northern and eastern edges of the fire. There will be continued contingency line construction in advance of the communities of Tuolumne City, Twain Harte, and Long Barn. Mopup and and contingency line construction will take place on the western and southern edges of the fire. Continued construction and improvement of contingency lines along Dodge Ridge will happen. A burnout operation is planned for the eastern edge of the fire in Yosemite National Park between Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and Harden Lake when conditions become favorable. There will also be burnout operations on the northern edge of the fire between Hells Mountain and Clavey Meadows.”

UPDATE: The unified command’s forecast for the fire’s behavior is not promising:

Continued warmer and drier weather is forecasted for the next several days, which will elecate control concerns and slow burnout progress. Remotely piloted aircraft is providing realtime visual and infrared intelligence on the fire. Continued unified command with CAL FIRE.

Rapid fire growth and extreme fire behavior continue to hamper suppression efforts. A significant utilization and reliance upon aerial resources with heavy air tankers including the VLAT DC-10 and MAFFS is occurring with reinforcement of control lines in advance of the fire’s spread, control of spot fires, and slowing the fire’s advancement through terrain inaccessible to ground resources to allow time for indirect line construction to be completed. Type 1 helicopters are providing point protection and cooling areas where direct line construction can be achieved safely. Approximately 4,500 structures remain threatened in advance of the fire on both the east and west sides. Fire is expected to continue its eastward spread farther into the west side of Yosemite National Park, east of Aspen Valley. Several residents remain under mandatory evacuation in the Scotts Ridge area south of HWY 120.

Due to inaccessible steep terrain and extreme fire behavior suppression efforts on active portions of the fire are being significantly challenged. Heavy reliance on aviation resources has been critical in an effort to slow the fire’s progress to allow suppression resources to establish indirect control lines in areas where accessibility and safety can be achieved. The availability of heavy aircraft is pertinent to the success of suppression efforts.”

[imageeffect type=”none” align=”alignleft” lightbox=”yes” width=”300″ height=”254″ alt=”” url=”/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/RimFireMapAug30.jpg” ]UPDATE: The map at left (click to enlarge) shows just how large of an area the fire has burned, showing the fire’s boundary as of this morning. Yet, the fire’s growth has slowed considerably with lower temperatures and higher humidity

Compared to the map of four days ago, the fire has grown considerably in the direction of Yosemite Valley (seen in the lower-right corner), with the fire’s south-eastern boundary now only about 10 miles from the valley’s northern rim. One ridge line and valley is all that separates the fire from Yosemite Valley; it is this ridge line, Tioga Road, where firefighters are now making a stand (see below).

The three roads (purple lines) in the bottom-right corner are Big Oak Flat Road (closed), Hwy. 140 (open) and Hwy. 41 (open) where they meet on the Yosemite Valley Floor. The purple road just north of Yosemite Valley is Hwy. 120/Tioga Road (now closed, see below), leading to Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Pass.


[imageeffect type=”none” align=”alignright” lightbox=”yes” width=”239″ height=”300″ alt=”” url=”/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/closed-yosemite-aug-29.jpg” ]NEW CLOSURES!!!: The National Park Service has extended the backcountry closure area considerably, now encompassing nearly 1/3 of the park, all north of Yosemite Valley. While the closure (see map at right, click to enlarge) extends all the way to the northern rim of Yosemite Valley, the valley remains open and is not in any danger.

While Yosemite Valley is what most people relate to when they think of Yosemite National Park, it is important and relative to understand that the valley is only 5% of the park’s total size.

While the fire is not threatening Yosemite Valley at this time, it is threatening had reached another park landmark, Hetch Hetchy Valley and Reservoir. The Tuolumne River flows down this river canyon from Tuolumne Meadows, where it is then dammed up at Hetchy Hetchy Reservoir, which provides the water and electricity for the City of San Francisco.

On August 28, the fire had entered the canyon and was less than two miles from had burned all along the southern edge of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, right up to the water.

As the fire continues its spread toward Yosemite Valley, fire officials closed Tioga Road, from Crane Flat to Tuolumne Meadows, in order to begin a large back fire burning operation (seen in photo below-right, click to enlarge), in hopes of stopping the fire’s forward progress toward the valley.

[imageeffect type=”none” align=”alignright” lightbox=”yes” width=”200″ height=”300″ alt=”” url=”/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/RimFireTiogaRoad.jpg” ]From the Park Service:

A portion of the Tioga Road, from Crane Flat to White Wolf, will be temporarily closed to all vehicular traffic beginning tomorrow,Wednesday, August 28, 2013, at 12:00 noon.  The closure is necessary for firefighters to perform fire suppression activities along the road.  This portion of the road is anticipated to be closed at least through Labor Day Weekend.  The park will issue an update as conditions allow for the reopening of the road.

“The work that will be performed over the next few days is instrumental in suppressing the Rim Fire within Yosemite.  The safety of the firefighters working along the road is our paramount concern,” stated park Superintendent Don Neubacher.  

Tamarack Flat and Yosemite Creek Campgrounds, both located along the Tioga Road within the closure, will remain closed during the fire suppression efforts.  White Wolf Campground and White Wolf Lodge will remain closed.  The Tioga Road will remain open east of White Wolf to the Tioga Pass Entrance.  The Porcupine Flat Campground, the Tuolumne Meadows Campground, and all visitor services within Tuolumne Meadows will remain open.

Highway 41, from the southern portion of the park, and Highway 140, from the western portion of the park, will remain open.  Both of these roads provide access to Yosemite Valley.

As for how the fire is affecting Yosemite National Park, while Hwy. 120 is closed from the west entry, visitor can still access Tuolumne Meadows from the east via Lee Vining and Tioga Pass.

Specifically to Yosemite National Park, this is the advisory we received August 26:

Most of Yosemite National Park is not affected by the fire and is relatively smoke-free. The northern part of the park, including some areas along the Tioga Road, has some smoke. Conditions may change if winds shift. However:

  • • The Big Oak Flat Road (the continuation of Highway 120 inside Yosemite) and Highway 120 west of Yosemite are closed between J132 near Buck Meadows (outside the park) to Crane Flat Campground (inside the park). If you are trying to get to Yosemite from the west, use Highway 140 from Merced. You may also enter Yosemite via Highway 41 from the south and 120 from the east (Tioga Pass).
  • • Hetch Hetchy Road and Evergreen Road are closed.
  • • White Wolf is closed, including the lodge, campground, road, and trails originating from White Wolf. This area is closed due to smoky conditions.
  • • Crane Flat, Hodgdon Meadow Campground and Hetch Hetchy Backpackers’ Campground are closed.
  • • Merced and Tuolumne Groves of Giant Sequoias are closed so firefighters can work on preventive fire suppression efforts. The groves are not currently in imminent danger.
  • • Wilderness trail closures: The area west of the May Lake Road and May Lake Trail continuing to the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) at Glen Aulin and then north along the PCT to Bond Pass is closed. The park’s boundary serves as the closure’s northern and western edge extending south to Crane Flat Campground. The closure boundary continues east along the Tioga Road (Highway 120 through the park) to the May Lake Road. The Tioga Road and the trails serving as the eastern boundary of the closed area (including the PCT) remain open. May Lake High Sierra Camp, Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp, and Porcupine Flat Campground are open.
  • • Fire restrictions: No smoking and no building, maintaining, or using a fire, campfire or cooking fire (including charcoal fires) within the Yosemite Wilderness and potential wilderness additions. Portable stoves using gas or pressuring liquid fuel are allowed. Alcohol and Sierra stoves are not allowed. Campfires may still be used in designated campsites at designated campgrounds in non-wilderness areas within the park.
  • • All other roads and areas are open. Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point, Wawona, Mariposa Grove, and Tuolumne Meadows areas are all open. Campgrounds in Wawona, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite Valley, Porcupine Flat, and Tuolumne Meadows are open.

[imageeffect type=”none” align=”alignleft” lightbox=”yes” width=”300″ height=”168″ alt=”” url=”/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/RimFireTuolumneGrove.jpg” ]The size, scope and magnitude of this fire is so large that nothing can be predicated at this point. Recent reports from the field shared that the fire was creating its own weather patterns, which in turn created new wind directions and shifts that make the fire completely unpredictable.

As noted above, firefighters are working in the Merced and Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias, as seen in the photo at left (click to enlarge), creating fire breaks and running a continous sprinkler system around all of the mammoth trees, in hopes that if either of the groves are threatened by the fire, these efforts will keep fire damage to a minimum.

Those that have attended one of our Yosemite Workshops that visits the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias might recall the natural history lesson about how fire retardant these great trees are, or more specifically the tree’s bark. However, the Rim Fire is so large and so hot, there is concern that the trees could be damaged by this massive wildfire when compared to lower-intensity ground fires. (The Mariposa Grove is located in the southern portion of the park, near Wawona, and is not threatened by the fire.)


 As to the queries about the status of the workshops, the workshops themselves seem quite insignificant and irrelevant when placed into perspective of the homes already lost in this fire, the 4,500 homes still in danger, and in regards to the wide scale damage to the forest’s ecosystem as a result of this devastating “natural” disaster. (We use the term “natural” loosely as the source and cause of the fire is still officially under investigation.)

As of today, no areas within Yosemite National Park that have burned or are immediately threatened are areas that we visit and photograph during our workshops. Our upcoming “Advanced Photography: The Zen of Thinking” course in October is held mostly in the southern portion of the park, with some photography in Yosemite Valley. Also, following the Eastern Sierra & Owens Valley workshop in October, participants venture over Tioga Pass and into Yosemite for continued photography.

It is too premature to estimate if the Rim Fire would have any impact on either of the October workshops, or next year’s winter or spring workshops. Though, the fire would have to be absolutely devastating, becoming the largest fire in United States history, if it were to reach down to the southern portion of the park, where October’s workshop will be held.

We will provide updates for this fire on a regular basis with any information we receive that goes beyond regular news reports.


UPDATE: The National Park Service in Yosemite released this timelapse video of the Rim Fire, saying “Time-lapse photography shows various perspectives of the 2013 Rim Fire, as viewed from Yosemite National Park. The first part of this video is from the Crane Flat Helibase. The fire is currently burning in wilderness and is not immediately threatening visitors or employees. The second half of the video is from Glacier Point, showing Yosemite Valley, and how little the smoke from the fire has impacted the Valley.”

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The air attack on the Rim Fire is quite intensive, with multiple aircraft and helicopters doing water and retardant drops non-stop through the daylight hours. Watching these pilots and planes do these drops is quite impressive, especially when you consider how close to the ground they must fly, the immediate weight change of the plane as the retardant is dropped, the massive heat updrafts that the plane is battling from the fires, and the strong winds buttressing the plane as it comes in close to the fire line.

The U.S. Forest Service just released a video (below) from the Rim Fire, showing the view from the front of the plane as it heads in to do a retardant drop. The dialogue between the pilots and the lead plane allow for some excellent perspective of how these retardant drops are operated. And witnessing the size of this fire from the air puts into perspective everything you have been reading above, as well as the fight the firefighters have ahead of them.

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All photos and video courtesy of U.S. Forest Service.