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Yosemite fire situation improves; prescribed burn program defended

August 31, 2009 |  1:06 pm

The Big Meadow fire as viewed last Wednesday.

*Updated at 4:45 p.m. to reflect road closure information

As of noon Monday, the Big Meadow fire within Yosemite National Park had consumed nearly 5,000 acres but was 55% contained and crews were making enough progress that some of the air tankers being used to help battle the blaze were sent to Southern California, where a far more volatile situation exists.

The west end of Tioga Road has been closed to through traffic from White Wolf to Crane Flat Gas Station because of poor visibility, and it remains unclear when it will reopen. Tuolumne Meadows to White Wolf is still accessible from the east end of the park via U.S. 395.

Many hiking trails and campsites remain closed. No structures have been lost.

Meanwhile, many are asking the question: How did this prescribed burn, which was supposed to involve only 91 acres, get away from a National Park Service team that routinely carries out controlled burns? (None of those 91 acres actually burned; that's how quickly this fire changed direction and got out of hand.)

An interagency review panel will address the issue in a week or two, park spokesman Scott Gediman said.

Gediman added that prescribed burns sometimes leap beyond designated boundaries but no one at the park could recall a runaway fire of this magnitude.

Regardless, the park has no plans to abandon its prescribed-burn program, and that's understandable. Fires are beneficial in that they allow forests to regenerate by removing old growth. Since Yosemite and other national parks must suppress many naturally-sparked fires to protect lives and structures, prescribed burns in designated areas help accomplish regeneration while preventing fuel buildup that could eventually lead to larger and potentially more devastating wildfires.

The review panel will probably raise the issue of timing. The temperature exceeded 100 degrees when the fire began last Wednesday. The park addresses this issue, in part, on its website, but it fails to answer why the team could not have waited for slightly cooler temperatures.

Outposts will continue to monitor the situation.

-- Pete Thomas

Photo: The Big Meadow fire as viewed last Wednesday. Credit: National Parks Service


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