Debbie Croft: After Rim fire devastates region, community pulls together

01/17/2014 7:00 PM

01/17/2014 7:57 PM

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series.

At a recent meeting of Yosemite Gateway Partners, several speakers addressed the ramifications of last summer’s horrific Rim fire, describing them as widespread and challenging. They also acknowledged that the surrounding community has pulled together amid the crisis and is moving on.

More of Yosemite National Park lies within Tuolumne County than in the other surrounding counties. Craig Pedro, who represented Tuolumne County, explained that “only 10 percent of the park burned, and that was mostly in the wilderness area.”

But the size and the intensity of the fire kept county workers and agencies hopping, especially its emergency operation center. The center provided support to individuals and other agencies managing the massive wildfire, Pedro said.

“It makes me feel good as a citizen to see how all the agencies worked together for the good of the public,” he said. “It sounds corny, I know, but that’s the way it’s supposed to work. And I’m very proud of that.”

In fire operations alone, the cost reached over $127 million. The amount of public damage reported to the Federal Emergency Management Agency was more than $54 million. Besides bringing business to a halt in the communities closest to the fire, the disaster affected the cattle industry, air pollution control and agriculture.

Following the fire, Pedro’s department talked to eight of the largest businesses in the county to assess the economic damage. That review shows the Rim fire negatively impacted businesses and the economy to the tune of $1.7 million in losses. Agriculturally, $5 million worth of rangeland and livestock were destroyed.

Tuolumne County is working to connect private individuals and business owners with agencies to help finance rebuilding efforts.

Impact on tribal lands

Dore Bietz is a member of the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians. The Me-Wuk is a federally recognized Indian tribe in Tuolumne County. The tribal lands cover more thane 1,700 acres, which is home to about 500 tribal members.

“We have a very strong commitment to local relationships,” said Bietz, planner and Indian lands consultant.

Her heritage is full northern and southern Me-Wuk. Bietz’s grandmother worked in Yosemite National Park. Her grandfather was born inside the park’s boundaries.

“Our tribe has the best working relationship with state and county governments,” Bietz said

This becomes apparent during emergency situations. The tribe’s Community Emergency Response Team provided information to the tribal community and worked with organizations to provide assistance.

The fire did not reach the community, but vegetation nearby was destroyed. The loss will hinder the tribe’s gathering efforts of natural materials for making handicrafts.

Cleanup efforts continue

Gus Smith, a fire ecologist with the park, presented fire statistics.

The Rim fire started on August 17, 2013, at 3 p.m. It was allegedly caused by humans at the bottom of a slope in the Stanislaus National Forest.

According to his report, an abundance of high-energy forest fuel and low moisture contributed to the high velocity and ferocity of the fire’s movement.

“We were ready for a fire in this part of the park, but not ready for the way the fire progressed,” he said. “We had never seen fire growth of 30,000 to 50,000 acres in one day.”

A cabin in the Merced Grove was protected, and back-burning conducted near the Rockefeller Grove saved that area of Sugar Pines.

Due to light rainfall this season, he said, cleanup efforts within the forest have progressed quickly.

Looking forward

Much has happened since Don Neubacher, of the National Park Service, stepped into the role as superintendent of Yosemite.

During the summer of 2011, an unusual number of park visitors fell over waterfalls. The next summer the hantavirus outbreak discouraged visitors. And last summer both the Rim fire and the government shutdown took their toll on the tourism industry in and around the park.

While Central California’s current drought may not be good news, Neubacher and others at the meeting agreed, there are some advantages. “The lack of rain means not having large erosion problems, or flooding and sediment events,” Neubacher stated.

As 2014 is the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite grant, the superintendent, employees of the park and those with Yosemite Gateway Partners are looking forward to a great year. “This anniversary is a good time to move forward,” Neubacher concluded.

Entrance fees waived

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 20, park entrance fees will be waived.

Traveling along the Merced River to or from Yosemite this time of year, glassy pools are fringed by snow and ice from recent storms. Without summer’s congested traffic, winter visitors have a greater opportunity to discover the allure of America’s beloved national park.

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