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One Year Later, Questions Still Burn About The Rim Fire

Ezra David Romero
Valley Public Radio

 We now know who ignited the Rim Fire that scarred part of the beauty of the Sierra Nevada. But many other questions about the response to the fire still remain. In the second piece for our series on the fire, FM89 reporters Ezra David Romero and Diana Aguilera revisit the fire’s burn area and discover that people in the region are still wondering why the fire got so big.

Three weeks ago Wesley Wills had a flashback. 

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
One year ago over 5,000 firefighters and over 40 crews fought the blaze.

“We were driving down Big Oak Flat Road and just saw it blowing up again like flame lengths of over 100 feet,” Wills says.

He’s talking about the El Portal Fire that burned just miles from the Rim Fire burn area.  Wills, an archaeologist and firefighter for the National Park Service, pitched his tent at Drew Meadow the same place where the Rim Fire base camp was set up. Last year the camp hosted 5,000 firefighters and Wills says it was like a makeshift city.

But now this year with fires like the El Portal and the French Fire that burned in the Sierra Nevada people are wondering why the Rim Fire got so big, what lessons can be learned from the blaze, and whether the fire could've been handled differently or contained earlier.

"When it went over 100,000 acres I knew we were getting into new territory here. This was going to be a long duration marathon kind of fire fight." - Chris Schow

“I was here the day the Rim Fire started and lived through the entire thing,” says Chris Schow, the fire chief for the Stanislaus National Forest. 

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Chris Schrow was the head fire chief for the Rim Fire.

He’s the guy who was leading the Rim Fire containment effort.  He remembers the first three days of the fire fight as if they were yesterday.

“One of the air attack platforms that was flying the Boyd Fire picked up a smoke in the lower Clavey and flew over to it,” Schow says. “We kind of knew immediately it was in a bad spot.”

The ravine is steep and isolated, weather conditions were historically dry, and the canyon is a dangerous place to send firefighters. Schow immediately began the effort to contain the fire, but was hesitant to send a hand team in early on because a firefighter died in the canyon during a blaze in the same area in 2004.

"The most safe, most efficient way to fight a fire is to secure the anchor of it, work up the flanks and pinch off the head,” Schow says. “We just did that with the El Portal Fire at about 5,000 acres.”

"When the fire jumps a river and starts racing up the other side the best you can do is pull the crews back and redeploy them to defend structures and communities." - Chris Schow

But unlike the El Portal the Rim Fire could not be contained early on. On day three Schow ordered any firefighting crews out of the canyon. 

“When the fire jumps a river and starts racing up the other side the best you can do is pull the crews back and redeploy them to defend structures and communities,” Schow says.

The next day the fire took a turn even further for the worse by doubling in size to over 90,000 acres. But on day five, Schow knew the fire was out of control.

“It was about five in the morning and I got a text from the incident commander of the fire size, Schow says. “When it went over 100,000 acres I knew we were getting into new territory here. This was going to be a long duration marathon kind of fire fight.”

Schow called in reinforcements and they came as far as New Jersey. At this point it seemed like the whole world knew about the Rim Fire. Sky News reports.

"It has now burned almost 300 square miles of the rugged and wild Sierra Nevada mountains one of the biggest and hottest they’ve ever seen in a place where they know a thing or two about wildfires.”
Listen to the SkyNews report.

The rest is history. But now, a year later, skeptics still aren’t sure if the fire was handled with full force from the get go.

Filled with questions, Tuolumne County officials requested a Congressional hearing into the fire and an independent investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture apart from the Forest Service’s original investigation.

"We've sent a letter to the Department of Agriculture and asked them what's going on, what happened?" - Randy Hanvelt

“We want people to be questioned under oath and we want the truth,” says Evan Royce the chairman of the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors.  

The group originally wanted to know who caused the fire, questioned how the blaze was fought and the way the forest was managed before the fire took place.

“The ground attack at night I think was lacking,” Royce says. “During the day I think they had forces there but because of the risk they weren’t really going in, which is understandable but at night is when they should have been attacking it.”

Credit Diana Aguilera / Valley Public Radio
Randy Hanvelt travels to the place where the fire began - the Clavey River canyon.

He’s not the only one doubting. Randy Hanvelt, also with the county, has questions. One of the things he wants to know is why the gallons of retardant dropped by aircraft on the third day were dramatically less than on the second. A drop from about 65,000 gallons to 23,000.

"We've sent a letter to the Department of Agriculture and asked them what's going on, what happened?” Hanvelt says. “We had a whole list of questions. The answer we got back was not satisfactory, so we sent another letter and we’ve not heard a response to that one."

But Chris Schow, the fire chief for Stanislaus, says the decrease in fire retardant on the third day wasbecause resources were used for other fires raging at the same time. Schow says the network of fire personnel he fought the blaze in the best way they knew how as the fire became unmanageable by resorting to protecting lives and property. He also points out that no one died fighting the fire. 

“The people I work with both in the Forest Service and with Cal Fire they know their jobs,” Schow says. “They know how to access a fire, they know how to keep their people safe, they know how to attack these things in a way that will keep our communities safe.”

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
One year later the devastation of the Rim Fire can be viewed on the landscape.

A few months after the fire the local paper The Union Democrat interviewed Jim Dunn. The retired Cal Fire air tanker pilot told the paper that he and his partner helped in the firefight, but were grounded twice early on. This sparked controversy in the community, but left officials bewildered.

“I don’t think Jim ever meant to imply that there was ever a direction from the Forest Service or from CalFire or anybody to stand down any aviation resources,” Schow says. “If anybody knows it’s me. I was there the whole time and nobody said we’re not using CalFire aircraft, ever.”

"I do believe that in the future we're gonna see more smoky skies." - Kelly Martin

Despite the controversy behind how the fire was fought and the fact that the Rim Fire was ignited by hand, wildfire experts say blazes like this will no longer be a rarity.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Kelly Martin says large-scale fires may become new normal in the Sierra Nevada.

Kelly Martin is the Chief of Fire and Aviation Management at Yosemite National Park.

“I do believe that in the future we’re gonna see more smoky skies,” she says.  

Martin says forests in the region historically burn every 10 years, but many parts haven’t caught fire for 50 years or more.

“There’s just so much vegetation out there and lack of fire, lack of prescribed fire, lack of natural fire that a lot of this vegetation is completely prime for fire to help it reset," Martin says.

But until we get our forests in order the possibility of seeing a plume of smoke billowing in the distance is troublingly high.

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