A Big Loss, a Big Story

A forest fire is raging through the high country just west of Yosemite in Tuolumne county. As of this morning, 105,620 acres have burned. The six-day old fire tripled yesterday and is only two-percent contained. More than 2,000 firefighters are on the scene, battling in the treacherously steep canyons of the Clavey and Tuolumne rivers. fire

My first job as a reporter included the fire beat at the Union Democrat in Sonora, the county seat of Tuolumne county. It was a busy beat. The county is 85-percent state and federal forests and we grew up to the summer drone of fire-retardant-carrying airplanes and the acrid smoke of far-off flames.

As I follow news reports of this latest blaze, dubbed the Yosemite Rim fire, I hear names of places I know well: Groveland, Big Oak Flat, the Clavey and Tuolumne River canyons, Hetch Hetchy, Jawbone, Cherry Lake. I remember the summer I was 15 and my cousin Jerry Draper, neighbor Andy Crook and I hiked across the top of the Sierra from the Crooks’ ranch near Groveland to Kennedy Meadows: granite peak upon granite peak, lush quiet forests, meadows buzzing with mosquitos. My heart aches for all that beautiful country going up in smoke.


Were I on the fire beat at the Union Democrat today, most likely I’d be holed up in Groveland, on the edge of the fire. Maybe I’d interview the Crooks. Were they able to get their cattle out? Summers they’d have been grazing them up near Jawbone. Or I might call my nephew in Tuolumne to see if his ranching neighbors are heeding the recommendation to evacuate livestock in the case the fire moves their direction. For sure I’d call Sally Scott, a past managing editor of the UD, to find out particulars about past big fires, including that one, maybe in the 80s, also near Big Oak Flat. The one where the Dad drove his Jeep to the firelines each day to deliver the newspaper, so that people in the area of the fire could get updated fire news. These days cell phones make this kind of effort unnecessary, but I always thought he was a kind of a hero for those daily drives.

Did you notice what happened there? When I put on my virtual reporter’s hat, I was able to go from heartache at the loss of this beautiful, beautiful high country – every bit of it as beautiful as Yosemite itself – to the exercise of gathering the story. All these years of writing has programed my reaction to overwhelming emotion: get the story, dig for more information, shape it into a vessel. Writing objectifies. Making a story provides emotional distance, helps carry the pain, gives you something to do, at least, though there is no understanding such a huge loss.

“We got a monster on our hands,” Lee Bentley of the U.S. Forest Service told CBS News. “This fire is making its own weather. It’s going every which direction. This is one of the worse I’ve ever been on. I’ve been doing [it] for quite a few years.”

My prayers go out to the firefighters and the people of Tuolumne county.

7 responses to “A Big Loss, a Big Story

  1. Yes I am very worried about that fire. Your nephew my son reports the mountains around his home obscured by smoke and air almost unbreathable. His wife may not head south saturday for her 25th year highschool reunion, and his daughter may have to leave for her first year in college with her home in danger of burning down. And then there’s the four horses. The story gathers and grows just like the fire, burning thru the forest of our connected lives. God bless the firefighters.

  2. Terry Pierce (@terrycpierce)

    This is heartbreaking, Laura. We just got over the Aspen Fire (near Huntington Lake) that had blackened the skies of the Sierra for a month. Now this? I know that fires are good for the natural cycle of the forest, but I can’t help but think of all those animals, their stories, how some die and some will manage to live.

  3. Laura, what a great report on this awful fire and a new, unique perspective. I will look at these awful fires differently from now on. There is a human element brought to life by your “reporting”. Thank you.

  4. Just to personalize the story again: decades ago–probably around the same time you were reporting there–we spent a lot of time in Yosemite. We loved Tuolumne Meadows so much that we talked about naming our first daughter Tuolumne. So sad to hear about this fire.

  5. This fire is unbelievable – I can’t believe the height of the flames. We live in southwest Colorado and had three fires going at the same time this summer. We watched huge plumes of smoke over the mountain for months. Black ash sifted down on us and I saved a burnt aspen leaf that fell on our patio. The worst so far was the Yarnell fire where the 19 young men died – I used to live in Prescott, AZ. It is a small town and this would have hurt very badly. I agree – writing the story is doing a job.

  6. My prayers go out to you and all the millions of people whose memories and lives are touched by the tragic changes caused by this fire. Linda

  7. Thank you, Laura, for your words of comfort: “Making a story provides emotional distance, helps carry the pain, gives you something to DO, at least, though there is NO understanding such a huge loss.”

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