The Rim Fire One Year Later: A CBS Sacramento Retrospective
A look back at the third-largest fire in California history
Prelude to the fire
PHOTO CAPTION: GROVELAND - Firefighters from Ebbetts Pass Fire District monitor a back fire while battling the Rim Fire on August 21, 2013. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Baltimore. Denver. New Orleans.
Combine those three cities, and they still don't match the size of the Rim Fire.
The massive blaze affected the water and power supply of San Francisco, a city about 175 miles away from Yosemite National Park. It crippled small businesses heavily reliant on Labor Day weekend tourists coming to the park.
The Rim Fire came on the heels of another large blaze burning in the western Sierra Nevada. The American Fire broke out just a week earlier near Foresthill, less than 100 miles west of Lake Tahoe. Before the end of August, the fire would scorched nearly 50 square miles of land—ordinarily an impressive size for a fire, but one that was already dwarfed by the Rim Fire at that point.
But when it first started, the Rim Fire was small by comparison and easy to miss. While the American Fire had grown to more than 15,000 acres on Aug. 19, the Rim Fire was a mere 450 acres. That would change in the next few days.
Wednesday night in Truckee and along Interstate 80, people were stopping to snap a picture of sometimes-creepy-looking clouds.
Bill Tinlin didn’t know whether to run, or relish in the sky’s beauty.
“I was wondering if a funnel cloud could come down at this altitude.”
Severe weather did roll through the area earlier in the afternoon, but the spooky looking clouds were harmless.
They got their unusual look and tint from smoke, some of which had traveled all the way from the Rim Fire near Yosemite.
“I mean the skies are just incredible right now. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
CBS Sacramento, Aug. 21, 2013
In less than 24 hours, the fire would take off in a way rarely seen before.
Rim Fire: By The Numbers
PHOTO CAPTION: A cow walks through a section of forest that was burned by the Rim Fire outside of Camp Mather on August 24, 2013 near Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
The Rim Fire burned from Aug. 17, 2013 to Oct. 24, 2013.
Total acres burned
Acres Burned in Stanislaus National Forest
Acres Burned In Yosemite National Park
Acres Burned In Sierra Pacific Industries Private Timber Land
(Also, 7,725 acres of private land and 129 acres of BLM land burned)
Total Direct Suppression Costs To Fight Fire
Estimated Damages And Losses Due To The Fire
Cause Of Rim Fire A Mystery For Nearly A Year
The stage was set for the third-largest fire in California history. The region hadn't burned in years, and with another dry rain year in the books, all it needed was a spark.
What caused that spark was a mystery until 10 days before the anniversary of the fire. A federal grand jury released an idictment against hunter Keith Matthew Emerald, 32, from the small Tuolumne County town of Columbia.
The indictment was a long time coming. Rumors swirled in early Septmebr after the fire started about a possible illegal marijuana grow after a YouTube video of a briefing by Twain Harte Fire Chief Todd McNeil surfaced.
“It started down in the brush. We know it's human caused, there's no lightning in the area,” he said at the six-minute mark of the video. “Highly suspect it might have been some illicit grow marijuana grow type thing. It really doesn't matter at this point.”
The possibilty was given added weight because a month earlier in nearby Madera County, drug agents seized 15,000 marijuana plants from two grow sites in the Sierra National Forest. Agents noted a 40-acre fire in May 2013 was set at one of those sites by marijuana growers.
But federal investigators called the possibility a marijuana grow was responsible for the start of the Rim Fire nothing more than a rumor.
A day after the video surfaced, the U.S. Forest Service pinned the cause on an illegal fire started by a hunter, and said the unnamed hunter had no connection to a marijuana grow:
Investigators from the U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement & Investigations and Tuolumne County District Attorney's Office have determined the Rim Fire began when a hunter allowed an illegal fire to escape. There is no indication the hunter was involved with illegal marijuana cultivation on public lands and no marijuana cultivation sites were located near the origin of the fire. No arrests have been made at this time and the hunter's name is being withheld pending further investigation.
U.S. Forest Service Statement, Sept. 5, 2013
That hunter's identity remained unknown for nearly a year. The Tuolumne County District Attorney's Office announced in December that federal prosecutors declared their intentions to prosecute the hunter.
The primary investigation of the cause of the “Rim” fire is and has been for some time completed. The cause, origin, and responsible(s) are known. Federal Prosecutors have privately declared intention to prosecute. Potential accountability in the Federal System far exceeds that which is available in the post-realignment (AB109) California System. Tuolumne County Prosecutors and the People of Tuolumne County await just conclusion in the Federal System. Questions should be directed to the United States Attorney’s Office in Fresno California.
Tuolumne County District Attorney's Office Statement, Dec. 6, 2013
But federal prosecutors declined to comment on Knowles' statement or the prosecution.
It wasn't until Aug. 7, 2014 when a federal grand jury handed down its indictment that the unnamed hunter's identity was revealed.
According to court documents, Emerald was rescued from the area just an hour after the fire was reported on Aug. 17, 2013. He told his rescuers he wasn't responsible for starting the fire.
But that story would change through multiple interviews as he told investigators he caused a rock slide that sparked the fire, then another time suggested it was a marijuana grow. It wasn't until investigators promised to keep his identity hidden from the media that he would say he started the fire by burning trash to cook a meal.
The Grand Jury Charges:
THAT KEITH MATTHEW EMERALD
Defendant herein, on or about August 17, 2013, in Tuolumne County, State and Eastern District of California, did willfully and without authority set on fire timber, underbrush, grass and other inflammable material upon lands owned by the United States within the Stanislaus National Forest by starting a fire that eventually burned approximately 250,000 acres of land including land owned by the United States in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park, all in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1855.
Federal Grand Jury Indictment against Keith Matthew Emerald,
Released On Aug. 7, 2014
Emerald would recant that admission, but the evidence and testimony were enough to convince a federal grand jury to hand down an indictment. He faces up to 5 years in prison and fines of $250,000 per count against him.
VIDEO: Rim Fire Triples In Size To More Than 53,000 Acres - Aug. 22, 2013
Perfect Storm Allows Rim Fire To Explode In Days
PHOTO CAPTION: A firefighter uses a hose to douse the flames of the Rim Fire on August 24, 2013 near Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Aug. 21: 10,170 ac
Aug. 22: 16,228 ac
Aug. 23: 63,366 ac
Aug. 24: 125,620 ac
In the course of three days, the Rim Fire managed to explode more than a dozen times larger.
To put that into perspective, the above fonts are set to scale where 1 px equals 1,000 acres.
U.S. Forest Service officials say the conditions were ripe that week for the fire to take off. The amount of dry fuel in the area was just the beginning of the story. Very steep terrain also contributed to the flames' spread. Those two conditions are enough to fuel a fire that can spread thousands of acres.
But weather conditions during that time were perfect to help the fire explode rapidly. A very unstable atmosphere already was pumping more fresh air into the fire, and when combined with the dry fuels and steep terrain, a plume dominate fire was born.
According to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, a plume dominate fire is when a convection column—a rising column of air, smoke and fire debris—determines the activity of the fire. The forces of the column can be enough to override winds in the area, essentially allowing the fire to create its own weather patterns.
Remote area weather stations used by the U.S. Forest Service showed several factors that gave the fire plenty of fuel to grow:
- The Energy Release Component, a measure that shows how much energy is coming from the fire's front, blew past historic norms,
- The 1,000-hour fuel moisture, how dry the branches and logs on the forest floor are, was at 6 to 7 percent—drier than kiln-dried lumber,
- Moisture in the manzanita was also at critical lows.
Top 10 Fires In California History
PHOTO CAPTION: A sign for the 52 freeway lies among the hills charred by the Cedar Fire October 27, 2003 near Lakeside in San Diego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
The size of the Rim Fire reached historic levels, racing up the Top 10 on the worst fires in California history. The fire is only eclipsed by two fires, including one from just a year before in Lassen County.
October 2003, San Diego, 273,246 acres
August 2012, Lassen, 271,911 acres
August 2013, Tuolumne, 257,314 acres
July 2007, Santa Barbara, 240,207 acres
September 1932, Ventura, 220,000 acres
October 2007, San Diego, 197,990 acres
7. KLAMATH THEATER COMPLEX
June 2008, Siskiyou, 192,038 acres
8. MARBLE CONE
July 1977, Monterey, 177,866 acres
September 1970, San Diego, 175,425 acres
10. BASIN COMPLEX
June 2008, Monterey, 162,818 acres
Rim Fire Threatened San Francisco Water, Hampered Labor Day Plans
PHOTO CAPTION: Smoke from the Rim Fire lingers over the O'Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir on August 24, 2013 in Yosemite National Park, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
An odd thing happened on Aug. 23., 2013. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency as a result of the Rim Fire ... for San Francisco.
While the fire itself was massive, it wasn't anywhere near large enough to have chewed through the 150 miles of valley and coastal mountains between Yosemite National Park and San Francisco. Stockton and Walnut Creek weren't scorched, and the fire didn't leap across the bay from Berkeley and Alameda.
Gov. Brown's order had to do with the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, located in the northwestern part of Yosemite. The man-made lake supplies 85 percent of San Francisco's water, and concern grew that it could be polluted with ash from the Rim Fire. Also in the area were transmission lines from hydroelectric dams that supplied power to the city—some of which were shut down by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The city would spend more than a half-million dollars to buy electricity on the open market to power municipal buildings, a hospital and the international airport.
The fire would also put holiday plans on hold from Yosemite to Lake Tahoe. Labor Day weekend is typically the last big travel and vacation weekend of the summer, and businesses relying on that revenue were left reeling.
Steven Anker says he’s losing about $2,000 a day at his cafe right off of Highway 120 because of the road’s closure due to the Rim Fire.
“Usually this would all be full. It's our busiest time of year.”
He’s had to tell people to stay home during the wildfire, going from six people a shift to just one.
Labor Day weekend is going to be a big hit to his wallet.
“That feeds my family in January and February. We don't make any money then”
Aug. 25, 2013
Can Another Rim Fire Be Prevented?
PHOTO CAPTION: Trees burned by the Rim Fire are seen at Camp Mather on August 23, 2013 near Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
In the wake of a historic disaster, one of the first questions is always "How do we prevent this from happening again?"
According to Stanislaus National Forest Fire Chief Chris Schow, nearly all fires in the region are stopped before they get too big. Since 1970, 98 percent of fires have been snuffed before they cause too much destruction. The average year see anywhere from 40 or 60 fires to 150 fires, depending on conditions ranging from moisture to dry lightning strikes in the forest.
But it's that two percent that grab headlines like the Rim Fire and cause the most damage and devastation.
Schow says it's more important now than ever in the midst of California's drought for homeowners and property owners to do their part to save their own homes, even in the wake of a monsterous inferno.
"We saw many instances on the Rim Fire where defensible space and good fuel reduction projects allowed our fire crews to protect property safely," he said.
By clearing possible fuels such as dry brush and dead limbs away from homes and businesses, crews will have a better chance to keep the fire from destroying the buildings.
But it's also important to be careful while doing that clearing. While lightning strikes or other natural phenomena may cause a fire, 90 percent of the time, it's human related. California and federal agencies have combined to warn of the many ways a well-intentioned brush clearing under the wrong conditions could spark a large fire on a website promoting the One Less Spark, One Less Wildfire campaign.
After all, according to the federal grand jury indictment, all it took was one fire by a hunter in the forest under the right conditions to cause the third-largest wildfire in California history.
Rim Fire News Compilation
- UPDATED: Governor Declares State Of Emergency For Rim Fire
- Smokey The Bear Facing Retirement As Forest Service Considers Letting Fires Burn
- Rim Fire Burns 125,000 Acres, Crosses Yosemite National Park Boundary
- Yosemite Smoke Fuels Red Air Quality Alert In Reno
- Rim Fire: What Goes Into Fire Retardant Used In Wildfire Air Drops?
- Rim Fire Causing Detours To Yosemite National Park, Not Deterring Visitors
- Governor Declares State Of Emergency For San Francisco Because Of Rim Fire
- Yosemite Takes Steps To Protect Sequoias From Fire
- Yosemite Fire Brings SF Utility Emergency
- Some Residents Forced To Evacuate As Rim Fire Grows
- Rim Fire Near Yosemite 'Poses Every Challenge There Can Be'
- Rim Fire Near Yosemite Larger Than Chicago, Threatening 4,500 Homes
- Rim Fire Hitting Small Businesses Hard Ahead Of Labor Day Weekend
- S.F. Authorities Filling Up Reservoirs With Water Before Rim Fire Ash Taints Supplies
- Rim Fire Grows To Almost 150,000 Acres; 15% Contained
- UC Davis Researcher Believes Future Sierra Fires Will Be Much Worse
- Firefighters Gain Ground As Rim Fire Grows Past 160,000 Acres, 20% Contained
- Rim Fire Now 7th Largest Fire On Record In Calif.
- Rim Fire Near Yosemite Threatens Local Economies
- Ecologists Say Fire Suppression Efforts Left Century's Worth Of Fuel For Rim Fire
- Rim Fire Shuttering Tuolumne County Schools Through Labor Day
- Rim Fire Causing Asthma Flareups Hundreds Of Miles Away From Blaze
- Rim Fire Grows To 192,373 Acres; 30% Contained
- Shelter, Humane Society Taking In Animal Evacuees From Rim Fire
- Rim Fire Puts Labor Day Weekend Tourist Plans In Quandary
- Rim Fire Smoke Impacting Opening Of High-School Football Seasons
- Certain Evacuation Advisories Lifted For Areas Near Rim Fire
- Holiday Trips On Hold Because Of Rim Fire
- Firefighters Make Major Gains On Rim Fire Overnight
- U.S. Forest Service: Rim Fire Marijuana Link Just Rumors At This Point
- Main Road Into Yosemite Reopens As Firefighting Continues On Rim Fire
- Federal Teams Headed To Rim Fire To Assess Damage
- Businesses Along Highway 120 Relieved To Have Road Closure Lifted
- House-Backed Rim Fire Logging Bill Likely Going Nowhere In Senate
- Heavy Rains Bring Mudslide Worries To Region Scarred By Rim Fire