According to the latest reports, the inferno that continues to blaze through areas in and around Yosemite National Park is now 80 percent contained. Now that we know a hunter’s illegal campfire—and not marijuana growers, as initially suggested—sparked the 237,000-acre “Rim Fire,” it’s tempting to wag fingers about fire safety and pin the whole thing on a single careless jerk.
While our as yet unidentified hunter certainly deserves some of this ire, it’s important to put what is now California’s fourth-largest recorded wildfire into perspective. Here are five facts to keep the big picture in focus:
1. If it wasn’t an illegal campfire, it might have been lightning.
All this fire needed was a spark. Much of the land managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service out west is a tinderbox because of decades of fire suppression. The government has embraced a more nuanced wildfire management policy since the 1960s, allowing some fires to burn and conducting controlled burns to clear out underbrush, but it can’t keep up with nature’s demands—especially when balancing them with protecting homes and timber operations.
2. Global warming is also a culprit.
Climate change is not only shrinking Yosemite’s glaciers, it’s drying out the West. Since 1970, average temperatures in western states have risen 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit, around twice the worldwide average, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Snowpack melts earlier, leaving the ground dry for a longer portion of the hot summer season. Add to this California’s chronic drought, and you may as well douse the Sierra Nevadas with lighter fluid.
3. The Rim Fire is dwarfed by the Yellowstone fires of 1988.
The largest wildfire—or rather, fires—in the history of the national parks swept through Yellowstone 25 years ago, charring nearly 800,000 acres, or over a third of the park. Several controlled fires throughout the drought-stricken region combined over a period of months into massive, uncontrollable conflagrations, shutting down the park and leaving much of it looking like a blackened wasteland. As devastating as the fires seemed at the time, Yellowstone rebounded rapidly, leading scientists to conclude that huge burns are a part of its natural ecosystem.
4. Yosemite may not bounce back as easily.
Yellowstone’s lodgepole pine forests are adapted to intense fires, but Yosemite’s sequoias not so much, according to U.S. Forest Service scientist Malcolm North, who spoke to PBS NewsHour. “The forests where the Rim Fire is burning are very fire-adapted, but they're adapted to the kind of low-intensity fire that happens all the time,” North told PBS. “The Rim Fire is not like that at all.” Nobody quite yet knows what the long-term impact will be, but according to Carl Skinner, a Forest Service ecologist speaking to Wired, the forest in some places may simply not come back.
5. This is just the beginning.
According to a December, 2012 report by the U.S. Forest Service, “Wildfire will increase throughout the United States, causing at least a doubling of area burned by the mid-21st century.” Some especially fire-prone areas are expected to see the area burned annually increase by as much as 500 percent. See this infographic, courtesy of the Union of Concerned Scientists, below: