Smoke from expanding Yosemite wildfire triggers air-quality warnings 100 miles away

Aug 28, 2013 8:04 AM

(NBC) - One of the largest wildfires in California's history has triggered a smoke plume that has worsened air quality more than 100 miles away in Nevada.

The smoky haze from the Rim Fire -- which has raged for 11 days in the area of Yosemite National Park -- sparked emergency warnings in the Reno and Carson City area, The Associated Press reported. Schoolchildren were kept inside for the second time in a week, people went to hospitals complaining of eye and throat irritation and officials urged people to avoid all physical activity outdoors.

"It's five hours away," said 22-year-old bartender Renee Dishman in disbelief after learning the source of the haze. "I can't run. I can't breathe. It makes me sneeze."

Dennis Fry, a Reno auto body specialist for nearly 30 years, remembered smoke this thick when he worked on a logging crew and helped fight fires in Oregon during the 1970s.

"But never in Reno, not this bad," he said. "You could actually see the smoke inside my body shop."

The fire has already scorched nearly 290 square miles - an area almost as large as New York City - and by Tuesday night had destroyed 31 homes and 80 other structures. In all the fire threatens 4,500 homes, 1,000 outbuildings and six commercial buildings.

Though firefighters have gained some ground on the blaze, there is little doubt it is expanding - from 144,000 acres on Sunday to about 184,000 acres by Tuesday evening. Some 42,000 acres of Yosemite is charred, nearly double the area late Monday.

The Rim Fire was among the fastest-moving of dozens of large wildfires raging across the parched West. The fires have strained resources and even prompted fire managers to open talks with Pentagon commanders and Canadian officials about possible reinforcements.

"We are making progress," Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told Reuters on Tuesday, adding that fire managers were looking forward to a cooling trend forecast for the end of the week. "That would bring some much-needed relief," he said.

The Rim Fire is the seventh-largest wildfire since California started keeping records. What sparked the blaze is still under investigation.

Much of the terrain is steep and rocky, and if firefighters were dropped into the burn zone, there would be no escape route.

So firefighters are deploying a massive DC-10 jet to attack the fire from the air. Crew members can drop nearly 12,000 gallons of fire retardant from the plane’s payload on each run. Each drop helps slow the flames as the retardant paints the hillsides red. At least 15 helicopters and other fixed wing aircraft were also in use to battle the blaze from above.

On a helicopter flight 10,000 feet above the Rim Fire, there were reports of flames leaping hundreds of feet into the air and fiery hot spots on the forested slopes of the Sierra Nevada as the blaze consumed broad areas.

Fire officials have advised the evacuation of the area around Tuolumne City and in areas around the western boundary of Yosemite.

A mandatory evacuation was in effect for homes north of Old Yosemite Road as well as other nearby areas.

Elite Hotshot crews — among 3,700 firefighters battling the blaze — were stationed near residential areas, their first priority to protect life and property, and area residents were confident in their ability to do that.

"I have incredible faith in the firefighters," Sarah Whitney of Tuolumne City said on Tuesday. "They're walking around in their tactical uniforms and dumping retardant.... All that work, it's amazing."

Posters in towns and cities close to the fire thanked the crews for their work.

On Tuesday, earlier fears that the fire would disrupt water and power supplies to the city of San Francisco, about 200 miles away, were somewhat diminished as the blaze moved away from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

Glen Stratton, an operations section chief on the Rim Fire, said "It looks great out there. No concerns," about the reservoir threat.


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