Distant danger: Hiking in Yosemite alongside the Rim Fire
On Aug. 17 the Rim Fire started on the Stanislaus National Forest, east of Groveland. By Aug. 23, the fire had grown to more than 100,000 acres and crossed into California’s beloved Yosemite National Park.
A much-anticipated backpacking trip took on new meaning as I headed to Yosemite on the afternoon of Aug. 22. I had signed up for the trip with the Yosemite Conservancy months before and had been counting the days until I headed to the backcountry of Yosemite National Park. The plan was to hike to Lyell Glacier, the largest glacier in the Park, which has stagnated, or ceased its downhill movement, according to a recent study conducted by scientists from the National Park Service and the University of Colorado.
On Wednesday, Aug. 21 I had received an email from Kylie Chappell, the trip’s coordinator, regarding the road closures in Yosemite due to the Rim Fire. Until then I hadn’t paid much attention to the fire, which was burning too far away on the west side for me to give it much thought, but with the arrival of that note to my inbox and my unreliable sense of direction, I wasn’t 100 percent sure that the road closures mentioned in the email weren’t going to apply to me.
So I gave Kylie a call. She assured me that none of the road closures applied to me. All things were clear from the east side, including the skies. With the group set to meet at the Tuolumne Meadows Campground on Thursday, I was relieved that my one-hour drive would remain intact and not turn into a six or seven hour trek on an alternate route.
So Thursday afternoon I unpacked and repacked my gear one more time for good measure (I had been laying things out and planning for more than a week), threw the 30-pound pack I would be carrying for the next three days into my Jeep and headed for Yosemite. First on the agenda was a stop at the Whoa Nellie Deli, and soon I had ordered and devoured a plateful of lobster taquitos.
The group met Thursday evening and no one seemed affected or talked much about the Rim Fire. One group member, Brian, instead referred to a small fire he had seen on the east side while driving up from Los Angeles. I would later find out that a fire near Round Valley was ignited on Aug. 21 and smoke was visible from U.S. 395 north of Bishop to Tom’s Place. This was most likely the fire Brian saw. Luckily it was about one acre and was located in sparse vegetation and surrounded by natural barriers. It was not expected to spread.
In fact, the only real sign in Tuolumne that something was amiss was the eerie amount of extra parking. Travelers seemed to be avoiding the park for the weekend, most likely due to all of the press about the fire.
It wasn’t until we began to hike on Friday morning and our guide, Pete Devine, commented about the monster fire burning just to the west of us that the magnitude of the blaze really sunk in. Devine explained that the last he’d heard, the fire was historic in size at nearly 100,000 acres. That number caught my attention and I thought at first I must have heard incorrectly. The Aspen Fire, which had been blowing smoke into Mammoth about a month ago, had seemed huge at 22,000 acres.
As I would realize by the time I got home, not only had I heard the number for the Rim Fire correctly, but that wasn’t even as bad as it was going to get.
Yet, as we hiked toward Lyell, we enjoyed crystal-clear blue skies, perhaps giving us a false sense of security, but beautiful nonetheless. The only sign of the fire was a brown, smoky haze lingering over Mt. Conness (behind us as we hiked).
It’s funny how you can put danger out of your mind when it’s at a distance. Talk of the Rim Fire faded away completely that day as we got our first distant look at Lyell (a smoke-free view) and then found our way to base camp.
It wasn’t until later that evening, as we sat gathered in camp listening to Devine tell tales of John Muir, who had a long history with Lyell Glacier, that the Rim Fire came back into focus.
Smoke approached from a distance and quickly filled the canyon with its heaviness. A shift in the wind had blown the brown mist our way. Even though we were far from the flames, the speed with which the air quality changed was alarming. Devine assured us that he did have a radio for communication to the outside world if needed.
Devine’s co-pilot, Jon Byers, pointed out that if the wind continued to blow the smoke in our direction throughout the night, we could have a difficult time seeing more than 15 feet in front of us the next day as we made our planned ascent to Lyell.
We fell asleep that night concerned that our adventure might be impaired.
But Yosemite didn’t disappoint, and we awoke the next day to clear blue skies once again. We made it to Lyell Glacier that day and hiked back out the following morning without any major incident.
The fire danger in the distance that weekend did, however, highlight one of the issues we as a society may have to face as our climate continues to change and glaciers such as Lyell melt away. Snowpack on glaciers like Lyell serve as natural dams for water runoff each year. While large amounts of water are collected at the beginning of each year from larger, quickly melting areas, it is the slow trickle of glaciers such as Lyell that disperse water throughout the rest of the year.
Without glaciers, water reserves could be depleted by the time fire season really stirs up at this time of year.
As Devine put it, in the future, the fire season could be longer, stronger and more expensive to fight.
I arrived home to reports of the fire’s growth and the destruction it was causing, reminding me that while the fire did not affect this particular backpacking trip, many other lives on the west side of the park were, and still are, being affected by this massive blaze.
For the time being, I was relieved to read the following on Yosemite National Park’s website on Aug. 28: “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.”
But the fire is far from over. Tioga Road (Highway 120 through the park) was closed from Crane Flat to Ten Lakes Trailhead (just west of Yosemite Creek Picnic Area) on Wednesday. The only access to the Tuolumne Meadows area at press time was via Highway 120 from the east side. The closure was expected to be in place at least through Labor Day Weekend, which means that locally, we may see fewer visitors for the holiday. The Tioga Road was expected to 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 remained open.
Highway 41, from the southern portion of the park, and Highway 140, from the western portion of the park, also remained open.
All facilities and areas along the Tioga Road west of Ten Lakes Trailhead were closed, including Tamarack Flat, White Wolf, and Yosemite Creek Campgrounds, and White Wolf Lodge. Ten Lakes Trailhead parking was closed, but the Yosemite Creek Picnic Area was open.
The temporary closure was needed to support firefighting efforts in the Park. Firefighters were expected to perform fire suppression activities along 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 in a National Park Service press release.
The cause of the Rim Fire is still under investigation. At press time the fire had burned more than 192,000 acres and was 30 percent contained.
Read more about Kirkner’s trip to Lyell Glacier in the upcoming issue of the Green Sheet, on stands Oct. 5.