Fighting Rim Fire A Balancing Act As It Grows On Two Sides

The massive Rim Fire burning near Yosemite National Park has now scorched early 180,000 acres and has reached Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which supplies the San Francisco area with much of its drinking water.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

The massive wildfire burning near and in Yosemite National Park is still growing. It has now charred more than 180,000 acres of scenic forest, which makes it one of the largest in California history. At this point, it is still only 20 percent contained. Thousands of firefighters are working hard to improve that number and corral the flames. But as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, this is no ordinary fire.

NATE ROTT, BYLINE: Nighttime is usually good for firefighters: The humidity goes up, the temperatures drop and the fire activity slows. Last night, the so-called Rim Fire grew more than 10,000 acres, which is more than most fires burn, well, ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRES CRACKLING)

ROTT: I'm standing just off of Highway 120, a few hundred yards away from the entrance to Yosemite National Park. And as you can hear, the fire is creeping closer and closer to this entrance, though not with the same sort of intensity that it has in other parts.

Driving up Highway 120 from Groveland, we saw that the guard rails on either side of the highway were burnt black and twisted, which just kind of goes to show the heat and intensity that the fire is burning with.

Here, it's a bit of a different story. Most of what's burning is the underbrush, the grass, the shrubs, though that doesn't mean it's necessarily safe for firefighters, as we just found out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FALLING TREE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Let's go.

ROTT: Falling trees are one of the many threats firefighters are facing here. Rugged terrain, bone-dry fuel and just the sheer size of this fire are some of the others.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCRAPING)

ROTT: Russell Merritt(ph) scrapes at a downed log as another firefighter sprays with water and foam. They're just a few of the thousands fighting the fire, doing what firefighters call mopping up in an area that's already burnt. This part is worse than some of the others.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Nuked.

RUSSELL MERRITT: Nuked, yeah. This is a little bit bigger than the ones we've been seeing thus far this year, yeah, all over the place.

ROTT: But Merritt and his crew are on the minority of this fire, the east side. Most of the firefighting efforts are taking place on the fire's western edge, away from Yosemite National Park. That doesn't mean the park isn't getting resources, though. Tom Medema is a spokesman with Yosemite.

TOM MEDEMA: As it gets closer to things like Hetch Hetchy, we pour resources into that, the groves of giant sequoias, pouring resources into that. But on the other side, we have 4,000 homes.

ROTT: The fire has burned clear to the rim of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which is where the majority of the drinking water comes from for the Bay Area. There haven't been any reports of tainted water yet, though. As for the two groves of giant sequoias that are threatened, the fire is still miles away, and crews are putting containment lines and sprinkler systems to protect them.

And Medema says that in most of the park, you wouldn't even know there's a fire burning here. Last he checked, the sun was still shining in Yosemite Valley. It's just the north part of the park that's affected and will continue to be. And if forest has to burn to protect structures, Medema says he's OK with that.

MEDEMA: But when we're talking about life and loss of property versus loss of a stand of forest, the life and property is more important.

ROTT: The hope here is that soon it's a balance that they won't have to weigh. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Groveland, California.

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