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Wildfire At Yosemite Expected To Break Records


And a fire that started just outside of Yosemite National Park - here in California - is becoming one for the record books. It has raced through overgrown forest, doubling and tripling in size; crossed into Yosemite. And now, at more than 140,000 acres, it's bigger than the city of Chicago. Plus, it's still growing.

Thousands of firefighters are pitted against the fire, with more on the way; and thousands of residents have been evacuated. NPR's Nathan Rott is there, and he sends us this report.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: A small group of people are gathered around a plyboard stand just outside of Groveland, Calif.'s community fire department. Maps are posted to both sides, each with a big, squiggly line blob of red plopped in the middle. Denise Anderson leans in and squints at a point just outside the blob's southeast corner.

DENISE ANDERSON: Our house is probably like, right here - Ferreti and Pine Mount Lake Drive.

ROTT: She points to a spot a thumbs-width away from the red line.

ANDERSON: And if you look at this, and you look at that - where the fire came up to...

ROTT: It's about a mile away, you think?

ANDERSON: I'm really glad we left. (Laughing) I'm really glad we left.

ROTT: Anderson was evacuated with her family last Tuesday, when the so-called rim fire was only some 10,000 acres, less than a tenth of where it is now. The next day, it would more than triple in size, forcing thousands more to evacuate and placing it at the top of a big list of uncontrolled wildfires burning in the West.

Anderson was allowed to return to her home Saturday night. But she says the smoke is so bad, they can't sleep there. And she sees what the fire's doing.

ANDERSON: It just sits there and gets hotter and hotter and hotter; and then it explodes, just like a bomb.

LEE BENTLEY: The explosion - it creates a dome...

ROTT: That other voice belongs to Lee Bentley. He's with the forest service, and he thinks Anderson is smart to not unpack her belongings.

BENTLEY: I want to tell you, folks, don't get complacent. Don't feel too comfortable. I would keep your valuables...

ANDERSON: In the car.

BENTLEY: ...in the car.

ROTT: It's almost impossible to say what will happen next. The fire has skipped across the Sierra Mountains, charring valley and ridge, and has become so large that it's created its own weather pattern. Columns of smoke build up over the flames and then come crashing down because of their own weight, sending fire in every direction.

Bentley says it's like dropping a rock in a pond, and the splash is all fire. And in these fuels, that splash quickly becomes ash.

TOM MEDEMA: Those fuels are at about 4 percent moisture content - the dry, dead stuff. And that's drier than the kiln-dried wood you can buy at a home, you know, improvement store. So it's about as dry as it gets.

ROTT: Tom Medema is with Yosemite National Park. More than 15,000 acres of the park have burned, most of it remote wilderness. But there are other bodies at risk. The fire is burning towards the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which is a main source of drinking water for 2.6 million people in the Bay Area. It's also burning towards two groves of the park's cherished sequoia trees - trees that ironically enough, depend on fire to survive. For one, fire helps release the seeds from the trees' cones.

MEDEMA: The beauty of sequoias is that they're already fire-proof, for the most part, and they are a fire-dependent species.

ROTT: So why are they worried about them?

MEDEMA: The reason is because this fire's burning hotter than what's natural. Because we've put out fires for so long in the United States, we have this fuel buildup - right? - of 40, 50, 60 years; and this type of fire is not healthy.

ROTT: This fire could burn the trees' canopies. Medema is hoping that it slows down; that it can become a healthy fire for the park and the forest outside of it. But Lee Bentley has his doubts. The rim fire is leaving behind nothing but moonscape.

BENTLEY: This fire will - it's going to make California history. It made the top 20 largest fires in history, and it - I don't know how far it's going to go.

ROTT: And that's the problem - nobody does.

Nathan Rott, NPR News, Groveland, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.