Rim Fire Leaves Lasting Impression at Yosemite

The fire burned 257,314 acres, the third largest fire in California history.

San Francisco Chronicle

March 17--Those who venture to Yosemite National Park for the arrival of spring are getting shocked on the drive to the park: The sight of the Rim Fire zone feels like getting punched in the gut.

Along Highway 120, east of Groveland as you approach the park's Big Oak Flat entrance station, nearly everybody stops at the Rim of the World lookout on the left.

From there, you can see how the Rim Fire burned nearly everything in your view, 402 square miles or 257,314 acres from August to October, the third-largest fire verified in California history.

As you scan across the land, you can see how there are a few spots of green from manzanita and a few patches of ground-level vegetation, but otherwise it looks as though there was a war and we lost.

Some slopes look as if they have been scraped clean. This is where the fire was hottest, where chemise, manzanita and pines were the fuel for a wind-blow inferno so hot that it burned down to the soil. Not even tree skeletons were left standing.

In the fire's interior, there are miles and miles of dead, blackened trees, canyon after canyon.

About 20 miles in, firefighters protected Cherry Lake and its campground. But the access road is still closed from salvage operations.

Near Hetch Hetchy, firefighters also saved San Francisco's Camp Mather, but the fire burned right up to its flank. A bigger issue in the short run is a reliable water source for the coming summer. Nearby Evergreen Lodge, with gorgeous cabins in the woods, emerged untouched and is open for business.

Many wonder how long it will take the landscape to recover. For the answer, scan the landscape burned in the 1990 A-Rock Fire at Foresta, visible on Big Oak Flat Road on the drive to Yosemite Valley. Some 16,000 acres burned there and it still looks sparse, desolate and grim.

That was nearly 25 years ago. It will be far longer than that before the Rim Fire zone bears even a faint resemblance to the national forest that once spanned across the land.

Tom Stienstra is the San Francisco Chronicle's outdoor writer. E-mail at tstienstra@sfchronicle.com.

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