Railroad Fire explodes to 4,360 acres as it breaches Nelder Grove, threatens Giant Sequoias

A shot of the Railroad Fire taken from the Fish Camp area the evening of Aug. 29. Numerous trees can be seen being claimed by the flames. The fire grew to 4,360 acres and was 10% contained the evening of Friday, Sept. 1.
A shot of the Railroad Fire taken from the Fish Camp area the evening of Aug. 29. Numerous trees can be seen being claimed by the flames. The fire grew to 4,360 acres and was 10% contained the evening of Friday, Sept. 1. Special to Sierra Star

Information officers with a team overseeing the Railroad Fire confirmed Friday night what many in the Mountain Area never wanted to hear.

The raging inferno, near Fish Camp and Yosemite National Park, breached the northwest boundary of Nelder Grove in the afternoon, and could threaten some 100 Giant Sequoias that have taken residence in its sprawling, 1,540-acre wilderness for more than 2,500 years.

Not only that, the blaze grew by more than 1,400 acres throughout the day to the north and southeast of Fish Camp to 4,360 acres, and was 10% contained. The containment figures likely come as the fire’s western flank holds strong, officials said previously at a community meeting about the growing inferno.

Alex Olow, information officer with the South Central Sierra Interagency Management Team, said the fire was burning around Road 5S18 in the grove, located at its northwest corner, near where the Hawksworth and Granddad trees are located.

Olow said the night crew - with some 590 personnel, nine hand crews, four helicopters, 30 engines, seven dozers, and 12 water tenders - would concentrate their efforts on that area to prevent the flames from creeping further into the grove and its historic trees. He said the defense efforts would last all night, as needed.

The Summerdale and Nelder Grove campgrounds have now been closed, joining the Big Sandy campground to their north that was evacuated Thursday.

Olow noted though the breach happened to the west of Sugar Pine, which remains evacuated alongside Fish Camp and locations like Tenaya Lodge, the fire didn’t appear to be headed in that direction.

Brenda Negley, a volunteer Interpretive Ranger with the U.S. Forest Service who recently published a book about the history of Nelder Grove, said she felt the sequoias on Nelder Ridge, near where the breach happened, would be the most susceptible to flames.

She said if the fire got into that area, and followed a trail leading east, many millenia-old guardians of the iconic forest would be threatened.

“If it reaches the area of (Hawksworth and Granddad trees) and heads east, it will get to Nelder Basin where a majority of our mature trees are, including the 22nd largest sequoia in the Sierra Nevadas, the Nelder Tree,” Negley said. “It is extremely dense there. The (Hawksworth and Granddad trees) are just inside the Nelder Grove’s boundary.”

Negley added though some have noted Giant Sequoias can actually benefit from fires, the majestic trees in Nelder Grove are “definitely threatened” due to numerous factors. Among them, she said, were a lack of burning and thinning operations in previous years, clear cutting in the late 1880s, and thick duff, or decaying vegetation, surrounding the generations-old trees.

“They are not fireproof,” Negley said. “I wish people knew that. They are resistant to fire, but when it burns hot, they can die. We have dead mature Giant Sequoias right now in Nelder Grove that died because of fire.”

In a positive sign, more than a dozen firefighting trucks from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services were seen in Oakhurst earlier Friday, headed to stage at the base camp at Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park.

For more updates on the efforts throughout the day on the Railroad Fire, which started spreading to the northeast before winds shifted it towards Nelder Grove, click here.

The fire is mostly moving away from Fish Camp and Sugar Pine, officials said, and locations such as Tenaya Lodge, Narrow Gauge Inn, and Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad still stand.

Highway 41 remains closed in Cedar Valley. A barbecue to support the area’s volunteer fire department, set for Saturday, was still going to be held at its fire station. Click here for that story.

Smoke and shelters

The cause of the Railroad Fire is under investigation. An evacuation shelter is at Yosemite Valley Visitors Center.

Small animals can be accepted at the Mariposa SPCA building, while large animals are being taken at the Coarsegold Rodeo Grounds, similar to the Detwiler Fire in July. Tanner Tweed can be contacted there at (559) 994-2794.

Another shelter, courtesy of the Central California Disaster Team, will be available at the Oakhurst Community Center.

Smoke completely blanketed areas in Fish Camp near the fire Friday, and was particularly strong in parts of Oakhurst and Ahwahnee. Ash was seen falling in Ahwahnee and Oakhurst in the morning, and other surrounding communities.

Those with sensitivity to smoky conditions are advised to consult with their physicians, and remain inside with the windows closed. Smoke is typically strongest in the mornings, officials said, and clears from the afternoon into the evening.

Temperatures are forecast in much of the Mountain Area to approach or reach triple digits Saturday and Sunday, then to head into the triple digits Saturday and Sunday, then begin to decline to the low 90s through the week.

Highway 41 remains closed in the Cedar Valley area, with no traffic allowed through to Yosemite National Park. Drivers are being detoured onto Highway 49 in Oakhurst along to the park’s entrance on Highway 140.

The South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team, which is overseeing efforts on the Railroad Fire, can be reached by phone at (559) 373-0040. More information is available by visiting https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5553/, or the Sierra National Forest’s Facebook or Twitter pages.

The Mariposa and Madera County sheriff’s offices provide updates on their Facebook pages, oftentimes with photos or information about road and area closures.

Members of the public can also text “RAILROADFIRE” (one word) to 888777 to receive regular updates in their area.