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Burning Yosemite, All Around Us

On Thursday, October 15, we were driving east towards Curry Village in Yosemite Valley on Southside Road just after dark when we saw a one-word roadside sign that said “INCIDENT.”

Within seconds we found ourselves driving by a raging fire on the south side of the road.  There were hundreds of hot spots burning in the eerie darkness, and numerous tall trees burning brightly 20 feet, 30 feet, maybe 50 feet up their trunks.  Danger cones were set up to keep us out of the right-hand lane on this one-way, two-lane road, leaving us only the left lane.

A scattering of firefighters and their vehicles were around, but nowhere near enough to keep the panic from growing about our safety.  Cinders were swirling about in the wind, on both sides of the road.  The smoke grew thicker and thicker, slowing us down to a mere crawl, until we could see nothing at all except the dim red taillights of the vehicle six feet in front of us.  We had to hope that the car in front of us was still on the road, because the road had become invisible.  At times even the rear lights of the car in front of us disappeared from view.

We had no choice but to either keep driving, or abandon our vehicle and flee into the dark, smoky woods to the north of the road.  We kept driving, slowly.

The smoke would clear somewhat, and then thicken again.  We saw hot spot after hot spot, and more trees on fire.  We wondered how long this would go on.  Where would it end?  Was Curry Village in flames?

We kept driving, and driving, about three miles until we reached the trailhead for the Four Mile Trail from Glacier Point.  After that there were no more hot spots or flames, although the smoke was appallingly thick.  We drove by Housekeeping Camp and were somewhat relieved to see that the lights were still on there, and the camp still occupied.

As we were approaching Curry Village, smoke still hanging in the air, we made a quick decision that we were leaving the Valley right away.  We reasoned that if the fire jumped the road, it could easily spread towards Northside Drive, the only exit by road from the Valley.

When we got to the camp, things appeared pretty normal, except for the smoke.  Nevertheless, we headed straight for our tent cabin, loaded up our stuff somewhat hurriedly, and then drove to the Front Office parking lot.  I went into the Front Office, looked around for some posted notice about the fire, but saw nothing of the kind.  I stood dutifully in the short line, watching people check in like nothing unusual was happening – except that everybody was asking questions about the fire.  The answers from the front office workers were that the “fire is under control” and that there was nothing to worry about.

When it was my turn, I handed over my keys, explaining that we were leaving early because of the fire and the smoke.  The young lady on the opposite side of front desk asked me if I understood that I would be forfeiting my deposit for that night.  I told her that we would sort all of that out later; I just wanted to get going right now, like – right now.

And that we did.

TAFT TOE

On the way out of the Valley, my partner got on her cell phone and called one of her sisters to tell her what was going on.  As we were heading north on Highway 120 towards the Big Oak Flat exit, her sister called back and told her that she had gotten on the National Park Service website, and read that the fire was set by the Park Service on purpose, and had been dubbed the “Taft Toe Prescribed Fire.”  Well, well, well.

I guess we should have felt relieved.  But instead we felt angry, confused, traumatized and betrayed.  The Park Service, and presumably Delaware North, which runs the lodging in the park, had known about this fire in advance but had never breathed a word about it.  We had been staying in Curry Village for four nights already, and had heard nothing.  There had been no written notices of any kind in the Front Office at any time.  There were no written notices anywhere in the park that we had seen, and we are inveterate readers of written notices.  What was going on here?

We stopped briefly at the closed information center near the Big Oak Flat exit, and looked at the “Fire Information” board set up there.  There was information about various fires in and around the park as well as general fire policies, but nothing at all about the fire in the Valley.  We wondered if there might be somebody in the kiosk at the entrance to the park to let travelers know what to expect when they got to the Valley, but there was nobody in the kiosk.

We drove back home to San Francisco that night, happy to be safe, but full of conflicting emotions about the events of the evening.

Friday morning I called the Park Service public relations office, and told them about my experience.  I also told them that as a freelance journalist I might write about it.  I asked what had been done to let visitors to Yosemite Valley know in advance about this prescribed burn.

The public relations officer told me that they sent out a press release on October 9, two days before we arrived in Yosemite.  Of course that press release primarily reached editors at various media outlets.  It was clearly not the kind of news that would be passed along very widely, nor was it.

I was also told that the Park Service had posted notices about the prescribed burn on its various “Fire Information” boards scattered throughout the park.  Uh-uh, I told her.  We had been carefully reading those boards, because we were concerned about a fire that had been burning up near Bridalveil Creek, off the road to Glacier Point.  We had seen nothing about the prescribed burn in the Valley.

Further, although I did not share this with the Park Service public relations officer, we had gone to the Visitor Center on Tuesday to ask about hiking the Four Mile Trail from Glacier Point to Yosemite Valley.  We had talked to a ranger there, and he mentioned nothing about the fact the Park Service was planning to light a fire at the foot of this trail.  I can only imagine what it would have been like to be hiking down this trail on Thursday and discover that one was walking into a fire.

On Monday morning I called Park Service public relations office again.  This time I talked with the chief of media relations for the Park Service.  He had been briefed about my call on Friday.  I asked if Delaware North had been informed in advance about the prescribed burn.  The answer was that the Park Service talked to Delaware North every day, and that the company was fully informed about the burn.  Did the Park Service ask or instruct Delaware North to tell its customers or potential customers about the upcoming fire?  The answer to that question was no.

I hung up the phone, and then called the Delaware North public relations office.  I have talked to these folks before, about another Yosemite article I published in CounterPunch.  No one answered the phone.  I left a message, explaining that I was a journalist, and that I wanted to know what process Delaware North had gone through in deciding what to say, or not say, as the case seems to be, to customers and potential guests about the planned burn.

It took a day for Delaware North to respond.  I got a very brief email that said “we saw the press release about the prescribed fire from the National Park Service last week and shared information on our Facebook page.”

We then exchanged a couple more emails.  I asked if Delaware North if they were telling me that the only communication they had from the Park Service was the press release, and whether or not they had considered communicating about the planned fire any other way than on their Facebook page.

The answer:

“We did not receive advance notice of this prescribed fire as it did not affect the facilities managed by Delaware North.” 

FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE

Those are the facts.  Now here are my thoughts.

Paul Newman famously said, in Cool Hand Luke, “What we got here is a failure to communicate.”  The next moment Newman is shot to death.

What we had last week in Yosemite Valley was a similar failure to communicate.  Nobody got shot, and nobody died, but the potential for disaster was very real.

Clearly somebody coming upon this fire without knowing what was going on, like we did, could easily have panicked.  What if somebody had abandoned his or her vehicle and fled into the woods, as we considered doing?  What if there had been a car accident on this dark, smoky road?  In either of these scenarios, the road could have been blocked, compounding the potential for disaster.  What if an accident caused gasoline to be spilled on the road?  What if the fire had gotten out of hand and spread across the road, because of an accident, or just because some of those swirling cinders landed in the wrong place?

Those are just some of the more drastic scenarios.  But what if somebody people with asthma suddenly found himself or herself in all of this smoke, or older people with compromised breathing?  In fact, we don’t know that there aren’t people who right now are suffering after inhaling all this smoke.

What if somebody just has nightmares now about what happened?

Both the National Park Service and Delaware North utterly failed in their duty to inform Yosemite visitors about this “prescribed fire.”

There are many ways that visitors could have been told about the planned fire.  All visitors have to go through the kiosks at the entrance stations, where rangers could have informed them about the burn.  Delaware North could have been instructed to tell guests at check-in what was planned.  Notices could have been posted at the Visitor Center and the various commercial establishments.

At the very least, somebody could have been posted on the road to stop drivers and tell them what was ahead, instead of just sticking up a sign that says “INCIDENT.”

Perhaps a detour could have been set up to keep drivers away from the fire.

None of these ideas seem to have occurred to the Park Service or to Delaware North.  Or, if the ideas did occur to them, they were rejected for reasons unknown.

It is easy to see why Delaware North would want to keep the fire on the down low.  After all, if we had been told when we checked in that there would be a prescribed burn in the next few days that would send palls of smoke up and down the Valley, we would have been upset and maybe have just checked right back out.  Worse yet, for Delaware North, if the private company had informed visitors in advance about the fire, either when they made their reservations or before they arrived in Yosemite, reservations might have been canceled or not ever made.  Delaware North would thus lose money.  Money, of course, is the whole reason Delaware North is there.

So capitalists act like capitalists, with little regard for anything but their bottom line.  No news here.

But why would the people at the Park Service fail so miserably in their duty?  It is clearly their responsibility to provide a safe environment for park visitors.  The Park Service is the boss of Delaware North, not the other way around.  Or at least that is the way it is supposed to be.

In recent years, for example, the Park Service in Yosemite has shut down cabins and closed various facilities because of the theoretical potential for rockslides that might get somebody hurt, even if that scenario is only remotely possible.  Is it not just as important to make sure that visitors know about actually planned fires in order to avoid accidents, or to let people with breathing issues know to avoid extremely smoky environments?  Of course it is.

Is what we have here just a “failure to communicate” by some unthinking bureaucrats?  Or, as in Cool Hand Luke, does this turn of phrase mask a more ulterior motivation?  Is it just possible that the Park Service is more concerned about its revenues, and the financial well being of its concessionaires like Delaware North, than they are about the health and safety of park visitors?

I wish I had been a bug on the wall during the conversations between the Park Service and Delaware North about the planned “Taft Toe Prescribed Fire.”

MORE FIRES ON THE WAY, AND SOON

These questions do not just concern last week’s news.  The Park Service is planning more prescribed burns in the Valley and throughout the Park.

According to the October 9 Park Service press release, there will be a prescribed burn in Ahwahnee Meadow, right in the center of Yosemite Valley, in late October.  That would be any day now.

There are also planned burns near Wawona and Yosemite West in November.  In addition, burns are planned for Crane Flat sometime this winter.  There is a planned burn for the Mariposa Grove this month, and the Merced Grove later on.

According to the October 9 press release, “Additional press releases will be distributed prior to the other proposed prescribed burns.”

Here is to hoping that the Park Service and Delaware North do a better job of informing visitors and potential visitors about these burns – and of protecting the health and safety of visitors – than they did last week.

Copyright © 2015 Marc Norton.

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Marc Norton’s website is www.MarcNorton.us.

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