California’s Rim Fire
by Max Whittaker

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I spent five days covering the Rim Fire for both Reuters and The New York Times as it became California’s sixth largest wildfire, burning (as of publication time) 255,858 acres. The fire spread into part of iconic Yosemite National Park, inspiring alarmist headlines along the lines of, “YOSEMITE IS BURNING!!!” Yes, thousands of acres of the national park burned, but they were many miles from the main attractions of El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite Valley.

In fact,Yosemite Valley was almost completely unaffected, even from the smoke that permeated Tahoe, Reno and other parts of Northern California and Nevada. It seemed that much of the reporting was done without reporters on scene at the fire, or without even bothering to look at a map.

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I also found it interesting how so much of the coverage focused on it being a “tragedy,” “devastating” or any other number of negative adjectives. Wildfires are a natural part of the forest environment in the West. Prior to 1800, and European settlement, an average of 4.4 million acres burned annually in California. That’s several times more than the 250,000 acres a year that burned in the state every year from 1950 to 2000. Unfortunately, a policy of complete fire suppression by the US Forest Service through much of the 1900s led to a dangerous buildup of fuels in Western forests. In other words, a very unnatural forest – with crowded trees, brush, and deadfall littering the forest floor. This buildup has directly led to the large, fast-moving fires we see today.

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What’s the solution? Yosemite National Park has been setting fire to the park regularly for the last 40 years in an effort to bring the forest back to its natural state. This should be done more frequently in other areas, but liability and our litigious culture make that a significantly more complicated endeavor in the ever growing wildland-urban interface. But that has its own flip-side. Should taxpayers foot the bill and firefighters risk their lives to protect homes built in and around forests?

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