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.
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.