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California fire crews face nature’s force: ‘This is a battle. But we have a system’

Wildfires in California

The Rim fire’s speed of growth owes much to the venerable piles of forest debris – and the hubris of denying fire. Photograph: Pedro Armestre/AFP


Powered by article titled “California fire crews face nature’s force: ‘This is a battle. But we have a system'” was written by Rory Carroll in Groveland, for The Guardian on Wednesday 28th August 2013 14.17 UTC

For a century, humans managed to tame the Sierra Nevada, investing immense effort and ingenuity to snuff out the wildfires that used to blaze through its forests.

Loggers were able to go about their business without disruption, and settlers were emboldened to build homes in ever more remote areas. It was man versus nature, and man, it seemed, had won.

That conceit is currently going up in smoke so powerful it is choking people hundreds of miles away. Nature has reasserted itself.

“It’s an event I could never have fathomed. The fire hasn’t behaved like any fire we have seen before here,” said Susan Skalski, a supervisor of the Stanislaus national forest service.

The inferno known as the Rim fire continued to rage on Wednesday for an eleventh day, and continued to grow, covering more than 288 sq miles and making it of the biggest fires in California’s history.

Yosemite National Park, U.S.

It has obliterated much of the Sierra Nevada and parts of Yosemite national park, turning trees, vines, scrub and entire ecosystems into a smoking, lunar landscape.

It is difficult, as you navigate the embers and haze, to imagine anything ever growing in this desolation. Maps with place names such as Cherry Lake, Femmons Meadow and Pinecrest are obsolete. Scenes from Dante have replaced tourist idylls.

The rate of growth has slowed in recent days, and firefighters have contained 20%, evidence they are finally prevailing. Investigators have yet to determine what ignited the blaze. There is no mystery, however, over what propelled its breakneck growth.

“It’s called fuel loading,” said Parker Berrington, a firefighter, clutching an adze hoe amid crackling flames and groaning, collapsing tree branches, one tiny part of a vast battlefront. “This is an area we’ve been scared about for years.”

Left unimpeded, nature used to produce periodic wildfires which purged undergrowth while sparing most trees. From the early 20th century, loggers objected – the cycle disrupted business – and authorities snuffed out blazes as quickly as possible. Thus undergrowth – fuel – accumulated. It was a time bomb.

“We’re dealing with a hundred years of suppression,” said Berrington, streaked and grimy from round-the-clock battle. “The most we can hope for here is to slow down the fire and secure the ridge line.” Firefighting planes droned overhead, obscured by a grey shroud of smoke.

Wildfires in California

‘We’re dealing with a hundred years of suppression.’ Photograph: Rory Carroll


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