Earlier today, the U.S. Forest Service released a statement confirming that the two-week-old Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park was sparked by a hunter’s illegal fire that got out of control. That careless hunter—his name hasn’t been released at this time—can now claim responsibility for having started the largest fire ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the largest in Yosemite since the park began keeping records in 1930. As of yesterday, flames had consumed more than 237,000 acres and 111 structures, including 11 homes. More than 4,000 firefighters are still working to put out the fire, which is now estimated to be 80 percent contained.
There have been many jaw-droppingly amazing photographs published in newspapers, online publications, and social media since the Rim Fire broke out on August 17th. The most gripping of these images—or of any wildfire photographs, for that matter—manage to convey not simply the fact of the fire itself, but also its scale: its size relative to the landscape it is rapidly consuming; its effect on firefighters and residents, made visible in their postures and the expressions on their faces; its impact on wildlife, whose instinct for adaptation and survival in the face of such astounding devastation never ceases to amaze.
Here are some of the most powerful images I’ve seen so far of what’s turning out to be one of the worst fires in modern California history:
The photo above by Geoff Quinn, previously unpublished in any newspaper or magazine, shows firefighters battling a surface fire in the foreground, while a crown fire rages in the background. It was taken near the Middle Fork of the Tuolumne River at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, August 24th. Later that evening, the fire reached the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir area, forcing the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to shut down two of its three hydroelectric power stations. “I was struck by the gentle crackle of the flames, as if we were before some cozy fireplace,” Quinn wrote in his photographer’s notes. “The quiet would be broken by the crack of a distant tree, followed by a thunderous crash as, here and there, they fell to earth.” (Geoffrey Quinn)
In another photo taken just an hour after the last one (and also previously unpublished in any newspaper or magazine), Quinn captured the sight of a fiery juggernaut bearing down on 100-foot trees near Groveland, California. “The column of smoke was actually rotating slowly and massively like a tornado,” he noted. “A forestry service official came by to say the road—a full sized highway—was impassible due to ‘a wall of flames.’ This spot would, eventually, be overrun as well.” Again he observed the improbable disconnect between the sight of the devastation and its accompanying sound: the scene was “uncannily quiet. I could hear legions of crickets in the thicket before us.” (Geoffrey Quinn)
Justin Sullivan took this photo, of firefighters from the Ebbetts Pass Fire District, as they tried to monitor the progress of a backfire while simultaneously battling the Rim Fire on August 21st. To me, their faces bespeak a poignant understanding of the severity of the situation they have encountered. So far, firefighters from 44 states and the District of Columbia have joined forces to battle the wildfire. (Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)
Two days later, on August 23rd, Sullivan captured this image of a lone soul brave enough to defy official orders to stay off of Highway 120 near Groveland, which had been shut down. (Getty Images)
Astronaut Karen L. Nyburg, currently serving on a mission to the International Space Station, tweeted this photo from space of atmospheric smoke given off by the Rim Fire on August 24th. (Karen L. Nyburg)
Max Whittaker took this otherworldly photo on August 24th of firefighters attempting to keep the Rim Fire from jumping across Highway 120 near Buck Meadows, California. The image starkly conveys just how unevenly matched the two sides in this battle—man vs. the elements—can be at times. (Max Whittaker, Reuters/Corbis)
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