Fire Stories

Fire stories from the national parks highlight events, incidents, and the like, associated with fire and fuels management, as well as fire education, technology, partnerships, and more. Stories highlight work related to Department of the Interior initiatives as well as local and regional initiatives.

Helicopter 551 at Yosemite

Yosemite Helicopter 551 standing by at Crane Flat, May 18, 2011. Photo by Jeff Pirog, Yosemite National Park Helitack.

Yosemite National Park Prescribed Fire Projects
Summer 2011

Yosemite National Park, California

As seasonal firefighters arrive and fill out the rosters of the Yosemite National Park’s fire crews, fire managers continue to plan for the coming fire season. Winter is still exerting its force as every weekend seems to be met with cool temperatures, rain and even snow storms. The arrival of helicopter 551, during the weekend of May 16, pilots were contending with winter weather conditions during annual check rides.

During the winter months, fire managers have been planning the prescribed fire projects for summer 2011. The projects include five park-wide projects.

As fuels dry out, the first project is slated near the community of Wawona. The Wawona NW project is a 300 acre puzzle piece that will complete a series of burn projects beginning in 2007. The primary objective of this project is community fire protection from unwanted Wildland fires. A significant factor with this fire is tying the project into the boundary of the lightning-caused Jack Fire of 2007.

Crane flat helibase

Crane Flat Helibase, elevation 6644', May 18, 2011.
Photo by Jeff Pirog, Yosemite National Park Helitack.

Another project awaiting snow melt is the 400-acre Hodgdon project (PW-04), near the northwest park boundary and near the community of Hodgdon Meadow. The project is being planned with the Stanislaus National Forest. The boundary of this fire project is against forest land and it adds significant protection for the nearby communities. The project would tie into other previous fires and forest thinning projects. It will add to other wildfire protection efforts near campgrounds, resorts and forest timber along Evergreen Road. Working with the forest will reduce costs by eliminating the need to cut additional handline through the forest and park boundaries, and the duplication of independent protection efforts by each agency.

In late summer the prescribed fire efforts will shift to the Yosemite Valley (YV-22), the 22-acre, Ahwahnee Meadow project. The primary objectives of Valley burns are to restore the meadows of the Valley, open Valley vistas and remove accumulations of dead and down vegetation.

Another fall project is a 55-acre segment in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. The objective is to remove an over accumulations of forest litter allowing for the regeneration of new sequoia seedlings. The giant sequoias require heat from fires to open the small cones and allow the seeds to fall to mineral earth cleared by fire, and to germinate and produce new sequoias. Prescribed fire mimics the actions of lightning fires, which occurred in the past, as evidenced by fire scars on the big trees. Prescribed fire within the groves of big trees also protects the trees from unwanted wildland fire.

The 250-acre “Soupbowl” prescribed fire is another planned fall project. It is near the south entrance of the park and the historic Wawona Hotel. This project is within the area of where prescribed fire first began in the park nearly 40 years ago. This is another interface project to protect historic park buildings, infrastructure and resources.

All prescribed fire plans face the rigors of approval from internal divisions within the park such as Resources and Science, with the final approval by the park superintendent.

A concern fire managers always consider is the potential smoke impacts to residents, employees and visitors to the park, and to the nearby gateway communities.

Summer project map

Map of summer projects. Click for enlarged image.

Fire managers work closely with county air quality regulators through the entire year and during all ignitions within the park to find those optimum days of good air dispersion, avoiding unhealthy impacts to health by smoke. Yosemite has found that coordination and communication, maintained throughout the duration of all fires with the air boards, has helped to minimize conflicts between the agencies. The first priority in every fire management activity is firefighter and public safety. The preparation of contingency plans for worst case scenarios, such as weather events leading to poor air quality, and taking the time to share those plans and the decisions made by park fire managers and the park superintendent with the air boards goes a long way toward cooperation. The social, political and regulatory challenges of smoke will continue to challenge Yosemite fire managers, but will be manageable with public outreach, open dialogue and sound science.

As the snow melts, filling the creeks for cascading waterfalls, fuel moistures will begin to drop allowing for the optimum fire prescription parameters for each prescribed fire project. Fire managers and firefighters are in final days of training, breaking in new boots, sharpening hand tools, packing their gear, and completing the final preparations for the coming fire season.

Contact: Gary Wuchner, Communication and Education Specialist
Phone: (209) 372-0480

*This story supports the Department of the Interior initiatives.