Drone launched to aid efforts
Crews building containment lines around the giant wildfire about 45 miles north of Oakhurst are making significant progress even as the blaze continues to grow.
California fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said Wednesday that the 12-day-old Rim Fire burning in and around Yosemite National Park is now 30 percent contained. It has chewed through 301 square miles of rugged forest.
Berlant says while the fire is growing by about 5,000 to 10,000 acres a day, it’s not nearly as active as it was. Cooler temperatures and lighter winds are aiding firefighters.
The California National Guard launched a drone Wednesday in an effort to get an early bead on spot blazes.
Incident commander Mike Wilkins said Wednesday that the unmanned MQ-1 aircraft already is giving ground-based crews a birds-eye view of new developments.
“Already this morning it’s allowed us to see a spot fire we wouldn’t have seen,” Wilkins said.
A similar unmanned NASA aircraft has been used for fire surveys in past years.
It is hoped the drone will help firefighting crews — nearly 4,200 firefighters with at least 450 fire engines and 60 bulldozers by Wednesday afternoon — combat the largest-ever wildfire in California’s Sierra Nevada region that has even entered Yosemite National Park.
Officials plan to continue using a California National Guard Predator drone — the size of a small Cessna — to give them almost immediate views of any portion of the flames.
Previously, ground commanders relied on helicopters that needed to refuel every two hours.
Officials were careful to point out the images are being used only to aid in the effort to contain the fire.
The Rim Fire started Aug. 17 and quickly exploded in size, becoming one of the 10 largest California wildfires on record. Its progression slowed earlier this week when it moved from parts of the forest with thick underbrush that had not burned in nearly a century to areas that had seen fire in the past two decades.
But it will burn for months, possibly until California’s dry season ends this fall, experts claim.
“My prediction is it will burn until we see rain,” said Hugh Safford, a regional ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service.
Smoke from the flames has spread largely to the north and west and has yet to impact the Central Valley, with no warnings issued by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
The air quality index in the Reno area still had improved only to the “unhealthy” level and in Douglas County, Nev., school children were kept indoors again when the index registered in the “hazardous” category Wednesday morning.
The air was clear, however, in the tourist mecca of Yosemite Valley, home to the towering Half Dome and El Capitan rock formations and the 2,425-foot plunge of Yosemite Falls.
Tourism officials in the Yosemite area continue to stress that the preserve is still open for business and that daily visitors to the park remained in the thousands.
The Rim Fire has destroyed 111 structures, including 11 homes, and posed a threat to ancient giant sequoias.
The fire also has threatened San Francisco’s water supply at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, but Stratton said it was burning itself out as it approached and that crews were lighting back burns to push it back into the wilderness.
For a time-lapse video of the fire, visit the Tribune website at http://goo.gl/HkDpbq.