YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – The first half of our day at the Rim Fire led us through areas that had already been burnt out or bypassed by the flames.
Now we were headed into the more active fire area – Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite, and things were about to get interesting.
The gates to the Park were closed and locked and two rangers were stationed at the entrance. One of them became our escort as we headed down towards Hetch Hetchy dam.
The smoke grew steadily worse as we descended into the Tuolumne river canyon, and active fires could be seen scattered along the route and across the gorge, putting up major amounts of smoke.
We could hear the sound of rotors as helicopters dipped water out of the river and headed up the mountain to deliver their payload, though the ever-present haze kept us searching the skies for a glimpse of the ships as they passed overhead.
Being careful not to exceed the 25 mph speed limit, we snaked our way down the mountain, taking note of the smoke billowing up from below as the fire climbed the steep mountainside.
As anyone knows who has traveled the route to Hetch Hetchy, it is straight down on the left side, and straight up on the right, with a narrow ribbon of road hugging the mountain on the way down to the dam.
At various spots along the road there was bright orange tape marked with the words, “killer tree,” with a skull and cross-bones stamped along the length of the tape.
The mountainsides were so steep that once the fire had burned through, rocks and trees were in danger of falling onto the roadway, and one would certainly not want to stop in those areas marked with warning tape.
Again we passed through areas where the beautiful green trees and the already-turning fall foliage lined the road, creating a beautiful canopy along the route.
One could forget for a moment that they were surrounded by 400 square miles of the third-largest fire in California history, having consumed some 256,000 acres since being ignited by an illegal hunting fire on Aug. 17.
The buildings near the reservoir were ringed with hose lays and they had all been spared the ravages of the fire.
We parked at the dam and spent about 20 minutes watching the helicopters dipping water out of the river, and taking pictures of the fire burning off to the northeast on the far side of the dam.
The haze across the reservoir created ghostly images of the granite monoliths rising from what was once a spectacular valley, rivaling Yosemite in grandeur.
It was a rare experience, being in this beautiful place with no people, no traffic and just the sound of the water shooting out the bottom of the dam, and the whap-whap of helicopters passing overhead.
The smoke was very heavy down in the canyon, and it didn’t take long for eyes to begin burning and the hint of a headache to start taking hold. One wonders how the firefighters work in it all day.
Content with the great shots we had gotten and ready to be on our way, we headed back up the road. About 3/4 of a mile up from the dam, the road was completely blocked by a thick wall of smoke billowing up from a fire just below the road.
Not wanting to endanger anyone by driving through it, the ranger stopped, and we all got out of our cars, anxious for an interesting photo op.
Approaching the smoke, we could hear the fire crowning out through the trees, and making huge whooshing and crackling sounds as it roared up the mountain. Our way was blocked.
After assessing the situation, it was determined that going on was not an option at that moment, so we headed back down the mountain to wait it out.
A visit to the heliport near the backpackers camp garnered us no awesome shots of ships landing, because, as we later learned, the helicopters had all left because the smoke was too dense for the pilots to safely operate. Guess they wouldn’t be dumping any water on our inconvenient fire.
So we took advantage of the offer of snacks from our fellow travelers, and relaxed on the deck of a very upscale “cabin,” kept for exclusive use by the powers-that-be from San Francisco.
I snapped a few photos of the monument to Michael O’Shaughnessy, Irish-born Superintendent and Chief Engineer of the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power Project. The plaque overlooking the reservoir celebrates Hetch Hetchy as his “legacy.”
After a little over an hour, the Division Chief came to gather us up and escort us through the fire area, so we caravaned on up the road, passing through the previously impassable fire zone, and the sense of claustrophobia gradually dissipated along with the smoke near the top of the grade.
It was nice to breathe fresh air once again as we returned to the park gate. Even nicer to peel off the Nomex and get back into my stretchy jeans.
We did see wildlife on this trip, including one industrious squirrel who was scampering around doing whatever squirrely things squirrels do.
Contrary to popular belief, wildlife mortality is not usually an issue in forest fires, as instincts kick in to inspire them to burrow in for the duration, or head for a new location where life is not quite so hazardous.
Passing back through Groveland, we took note of all the signs that line the road through this quaint little town, thanking the firefighters for their efforts.
One thing firefighters are not short on this season is gratitude and appreciation.
After a memorably delicious repast at the Old Priest Station, we decided to forgo the gnarly grade down to Highway 49, and took the back road into Coulterville.
The sunset on the way home was spectacular, as is always the case when the air is full of pollutants.
Though the fire is 80% contained, don’t believe for one minute that the thing is out, or that the smoke is a thing of the past. As we all learned the very next day when we woke to the smell of smoke in Eastern Madera County, a shift in the winds can change everything.
The Rim Fire has cost over $111 million dollars to date for suppression efforts, and has destroyed 111 structures. But the number of homes, cabins, businesses and outbuildings saved by the hard work of our firefighters and the strategic planning of the Incident Commanders was amazing to see.
Click here to read the first half of our adventure to the Rim Fire.