Last Sunday I drove up Highway 120 through the destruction left by the Rim fire. It was the first time I'd been up there since the fire had begun its odyssey of devastation and I didn't know exactly what to expect.
The effects became visible from the roadway about 2 miles west of Buck Meadows. Somehow firefighters managed to stop the flames barely 100 feet short of the Buck Meadows Restaurant and the adjacent businesses all of which have reopened to the public. I don't understand how these miracles happen, but I'm thankful for the people who make them happen.
Fire smolders in many places and signs are posted to prohibit drivers from stopping. The land beyond the road remains dangerous and will continue to be even after the snows finally extinguish the flames. One of the few places where stopping is allowed is the Rim of the World viewpoint over the Tuolumne River. Although the sparsely vegetated area is generally charred, it is in the thicker forests where you find groups of trees that look like charcoal spikes.
The damage isn't uniform, though. Some trees are totally blackened, some are only a crispy brown, and some remain green or a mix of green and brown. Evergreen Road is open as far as Evergreen Lodge, but Hetch Hetchy is still out of reach. The road leads through a forest that currently doesn't quite live up to the road's name, but is not completely lost. The rescue of Evergreen Lodge was another near-miracle and it is already open for business again.
It's hard to comment on the loss of so much forest the third largest fire in the state's recorded history without going to extremes and being thought a tragedian by some and a Pollyanna by others. But despite all the destruction, life does continue. I worry that the winter may bring major landslides, but I know that before long we will start to see signs of life among all the death. It is unfortunate that decades of vigilant and well-intentioned fire prevention led to accumulations of brush that now produce nearly unstoppable fires. Hopefully the lessons of this fire will help to ensure forest policy that prevents future disasters.
There are many places that I'm glad I saw before the fire and others that I'll have to get to know as they recover. I'm thankful that no lives and few structures were lost. Although the landscape will remain altered for many years, very soon will come the time to witness rebirth.
Inside the boundaries of Yosemite less destruction is visible from the road, though the smell of cremated trees is hard to avoid. Most of the burn area both inside and outside the park remains under a closure order and many side roads may be closed through next year or longer.
Driving up through the park on Sunday, the biggest surprise was the snow that had fallen the previous day and night.
Tuolumne Meadows had a light dusting remaining and in many places close to Tioga Pass it was 3-4 inches deep. The weather was crisp and refreshing and the snow was a reminder that everything in life comes in cycles even the San Joaquin Valley's everlastingly elongated summers.
On the eastern slope of the Sierra the signs of autumn are becoming apparent. Yellow is appearing in aspen groves above 8,000 feet and in many places especially in Inyo County fall color is already hitting its peak. Closer to home in Mono County, the yellows, oranges, and reds are arriving at a slower pace. The next two weekends should be ideal for enjoying them. Aspens are concentrated on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada near U.S. 395. From Merced, the easiest access is by driving east over Highway 120 (Tioga Pass) or Highway 108 (Sonora Pass). Mono County's website provides an excellent map to some of the best aspen groves and regularly-updated color reports:
Adam Blauert is a correspondent to the Sun-Star. He's an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking, and exploring the western states. He can be reached at email@example.com.