Yosemite fire burns a mountain region's economy

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service firefighter Corey Adams sits on a tree stump as he monitors the Rim Fire on August 25, 2013 near Groveland, Calif.

The Rim Fire continues to consume parts of Yosemite National Park. The blaze has spread to over 200 square miles. The cost of fighting that fire is $47 million and climbing. Add to that a whole lot of other costs tied to the economic ecology of the Sierra Nevada. There are actually cattle that graze in the high valleys and of course there are the tourist dollars. Even the Stanislaus National forest, where most of the fire is burning, brings in money. The fire took out a stand of trees that were part of a million-dollar timber sale.

We also have a lot invested in researching parts of the forest. In the 1920s, some forward-thinking scientists drew very detailed maps of parts of the Stanislaus-Tuolumne forest.

"They mapped every tree," says research scientist Carl Skinner. And not just every tree, but every stump, every rock outcropping, every, fallen log and all the brush. Skinner is one of the scientists working to update those maps. "One of the things that showed us, was that we have about three times as many trees out there as there were in the 1920s."

Skinner and his colleagues are trying to transform this experimental forest into what it was like in the 20's so they can study how U.S. firefighting policy has made fires bigger  -- and much more costly. Some day they set it on fire -- with controlled burns.

If the Rim Fire heads north and burns the experimental forest, it could destroy 80 years of research and investment. "It would give us a lot of information, but it would essentially end this experiment as it's being done," says Skinner.

A 75-mile drive south of the Stanislaus National forest is the town of Groveland, which nearly burned. It's unseasonably quiet there and the skies are hazy. "At the moment they are incredibly smoky," says Groveland Hotel innkeeper Peggy Mosley, her voice hoarse from the smoke. " I have a scratchy throat, if you will excuse it," she added.

Normally the Groveland Hotel is full during Labor Day weekend. Last night, only two of the 17 rooms were booked. But Mosley is hoping that will change soon. She wants to get people to come photograph the moonscape of charred forest.

"One of the absolute positives is in the spring following a big fire, the wildflowers are absolutely unbelievable," says Mosely. She is already putting together some package deals.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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