California's massive Rim Fire has already burned at least 192,500 acres of forest and scrub, including 43,000 acres of Yosemite National Park, since it started on Aug. 17. It's now California's sixth largest forest fire, covering a swath of land bigger than Chicago. More than 4,500 people, numerous aircraft, and one Predator drone are fighting the conflagration, which is only 30 percent contained.
The fire, most of it in Stanislaus National Forest but steadily creeping toward Yosemite's popular tourist areas, has threatened to contaminate the primary source of drinking water for San Francisco, 200 miles to the west, and has already cut off a major source of the city's hydroelectric power. Smoke from the fire has prompted air-quality warnings as far away as Reno, Nev. The Forest Service says the fire probably won't be fully contained until at least Sept. 10, and it could smolder until the winter.
The Rim Fire, in other words, is a serious natural disaster.
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It is also kind of beautiful, if you watch it from a safe distance — like the time-lapse video from Yosemite National Park above. The first part of the video shows the fire from the Crane Flat Helibase, a fire-fighting station at the western edge of the park; the second section is from a camera at Glacier Point, showing how little the fire has affected the much-visited Yosemite Valley — so far.
Mother Jones has a helpful overview of the fire, including maps of where it started, where it has spread, why it's so hard to fight, and what's at stake:
Still, with Labor Day on the horizon, the Rim Fire hasn't kept the tourists from visiting Yosemite. "People who come here, they like Yosemite and they're probably not going to change their plans unless they're ordered to leave," park visitor Mike Dresen tells the Los Angeles Times. "There was a hope that everybody was going to beat feet and there will be fewer crowds," adds Dresen's nephew, Jason Henika, "but it seems more like business as usual."
Park visitors may be nonchalant about the fire, but the people fighting it aren't. For one more view of the enormous fire, here's the cockpit video from a California Air National Guard C-130J-30 Hercules airplane as it flies toward the inferno to drop fire retardant on a burning meadow. As a pilot says at the 4:10 mark, the fire is "unreal."
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