Wildfires Blaze Across the West

Uncontained wildfires threaten areas near Yosemite National Park and around the western U.S.

Aug 21, 2013 | By Kelli Plasket with AP reporting
ANDY ALFARO—MODESTO BEE/MCT/GETTY IMAGES

A firefighter moves away from fast-moving flames in California's Stanislaus National Forest on August 20.

A destructive wildfire that started over the weekend near Yosemite National Park has spread to more than 15 square miles. The flames have forced the evacuation of several camps outside Yosemite and caused a shutdown of the main highway into the California park. As of Tuesday, the fire had destroyed two homes, but still threatened about 2,500 houses, hotels, and camp buildings near Yosemite,, according to Jerry Snyder, the U.S. Forest Service spokesman.

The Yosemite wildfire is one of many currently burning during this active wildfire season, which has national firefighting resources stretched thin. More than 40 active and large wildfires are blazing uncontained along the western U.S., from Arizona to Washington and Alaska. About 17,800 people have been dispatched to fight the fires.

A sky crane fills up on fire retardant while battling the Beaver Creek Fire in Idaho on August 19.
DARIN OSWALD—IDAHO STATESMAN/MCT/GETTY IMAGES
The Beaver Creek Fire in Idaho's Wood River Valley continues to blaze along the canyon hillside on August 17.

Managing Wildfire Season

The National Interagency Fire Center charts wildfire activity using the national wildfire preparedness scale.  On Tuesday, the group raised the level to the highest tier, level 5. It’s the first time the top level has been reached in five years.

Steve Gage, the assistant director of operations for the fire center, told the Associated Press that officials aren’t able to fill all the requests they are receiving for crews and equipment. The center positions crews where houses are threatened and where new fires can be contained while still small.  

The center currently lists two dangerous wildfires in central Idaho at highest priority. Idaho’s Beaver Creek Fire has burned 166 square miles and forced the evacuation of 1,250 homes in local resort areas. The boost in priority gave fire managers the resources they needed to attack the blaze more directly, fire spokesman Rudy Evenson told the Associated Press.

Battling Blazes in Yosemite, and Beyond

The fire near Yosemite started Saturday in Stanislaus National Forest. It remains out of control in remote and steep areas that are difficult for fire crews to reach. As of Tuesday, about 450 firefighters were working on containing the blaze, along with water-dropping planes. Camp Mather, a nearby public vacation camp for San Francisco residents that was hosting a special week for senior citizens, evacuated the 200 visitors and a few dozen staff members.

A sky crane fills up on fire retardant while battling the Beaver Creek Fire in Idaho on August 19.
KYLE GREEN—IDAHO STATESMAN/MCT/GETTY IMAGES
A sky crane fills up on fire retardant while battling the Beaver Creek Fire in Idaho on August 19.

The wildfire shut down State Route 120, the main highway into Yosemite, in both directions, blocking traffic in and out of the national park. However, the national park, which covers nearly 1,200 square miles, remains open to visitors via other state routes.

This year, more than 33,000 fires have blazed in the U.S., burning more than 5,300 square miles of land—nearly the size of Connecticut. The fires have pushed national firefighting spending past $1 billion for the year so far. That’s about half of last year’s total spending of $1.9 billion.

The total cost for 2013 will depend on the rest of the wildfire season, which traditionally gets very active in southern California as late as October. “Many of the fires have been in highly populated, wilderness-urban [border] areas,” Gage said in an email to the Associated Press. “That ads greatly to costs since so many more resources are required to protect built structures.”