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UncategorizedYosemite burning -- all around us

Yosemite burning — all around us

Why did nobody warn visitors that the Park Service was setting fires? Is it all about making money?

The Park Service sets fires to burn off underbrush and prevent more serious wildfires -- but you'd think the operation could let visitors know when the roadside on the way to Curry Village is burning
The Park Service sets fires to burn off underbrush and prevent more serious wildfires — but you’d think the operation could let visitors know when the roadside on the way to Curry Village is burning

By Marc Norton

OCTOBER 21, 2015 – Last week, 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.


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.”



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.”


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

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

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.
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  1. This NYT article rings true, all things being equal. But California’s natural resource and build environment infrastructures are nearing carrying capacity and with climate change and population growth, the rules of the game are being changed out from under us. This is not simply a matter of new, different people with new different ideas moving here, it is a matter of our collective footprint increasing faster than we can get a handle on it.

  2. GarySFBCN, I never said that you personally red-baited me or said anything anti-union. But that has certainly been a theme running through the comments from the anonymous trolls on this thread.

    It was never “clear that park employees were OK.” It was only clear that the workers at the front desk were telling people that the fire was “under control.” My own personal observation suggested that it might be otherwise. Note that saying the fire was “under control” is a far cry from saying that it was a “controlled burn.” Note also that I had just driven by the fire and through the smoke. The front desk workers were at their desks telling me what they had been told by their bosses to tell guests.

    You say that I was a “wuss” (and presumably my partner as well) for leaving, instead of spending the night breathing smoke and wondering if the fire was heading towards Curry Village. You are entitled to your opinion. I think we made the right decision.

    But whether or not I am a wuss has little bearing on the primary question my article puts on the table: why did Delaware North and the Park Service choose not to inform visitors and potential visitors in advance about the planned burn?

    You say that you “agree that visitors should have been warned” in advance about the planned burn. Why do you think Delaware North and the Park Service failed in this responsiblity?

  3. Mr. Baker, thank you for being willing to reconsider some of your initial reaction to my story. And thank you for using your real name and for taking responsibility for what you say.

    I am glad that we agree that visitors and potential visitors should have been informed in advance of the Taft Toe burn in Yosemite Valley. That is the main question that my article puts on the table.

    The response of Delaware North and the Park Service to my questions after I got home is only a secondary concern, of relevance primarily because of their failure to acknowledge their responsibility to keep the public adequately informed of their plans.

    Now let’s see if Delaware North and the Park Service do a better job of informing visitors and potential visitors of planned burns in the future that might impact the public’s health and safety.

    To that end, it might be useful to look at the Park Service’s October 23 announcement that they are planning a burn this week near Wawona and the south entrance to the park. This is a burn that will affect not only visitors, but also people who have cabins and homes in Wawona:

    I called the Delaware North reservations line on Saturday, October 24, and specifically asked if there were any planned burns near the Wawona area that might impact a visit to the area. I was told that there are no planned fires. I forwarded an email concerning this response to both the Delaware North and Park Service public relations offices. So far I have gotten no response.

  4. Here’s a story from yesterday’s NY Times that mentions Yosemite and fires. It would be nice to read more stories on 48 Hills that address some of the broader regional issues discussed in this NYT opinion piece. Personal stories are similar to flipping through the personal photographs of an over-bearing neighbor, mildly interesting, but usually fairly boring.


  5. Many of us have seen Norton around the progressive fringe for several years and have come to expect this kind of pabulum.

    More than 1500 people can stay in lodging or camp sites in Yosemite Valley. What kind of work force would it take to warn all of those parties as well as to identify and warn “potential guests?”

    Nope, Norton is an unreconstructed Marxist Leninist who should be publicly ridiculed for such phrenological politics. If saying that wild animals in a national park don’t work on union scale for Norton’s entertainment can be construed as anti-union, then that testifies to Norton’s political disconnect with reality.

    Norton has the contrast on his activist goggles turned up so high that one is either with him or otherwise against anyone “to the left of Genghis Khan,” a meaningless statement given political history.

  6. I would agree, while still observing that your article seemed that you overreacted, which is why I made my first comment which may have been a bit too harsh. It sounds as if the Rangers and the concessionaire may not have been communicating as best as they could, but it is a National Park, wilderness with a very small group of people doing a lot of different jobs. Your follow-up in the days later may not have gotten much attention because it was to the Rangers a relatively minor event.

    I agree with your frustration over people with fake handles blasting you. It is one of the things I hate most about comments sections and the reason i use my real name.

  7. There are hundreds of blogs where the comments are anonymous and they are not dominated by trolls. And there are many blogs that do not allow anonymous comments and they are dominated by trolls. The key is moderating the comments. And FYI, I have been ‘cyberstalked’ by dogmatic nutcases, so I stopped using my real name long ago.

    Other than thinking your are a bit of a wuss for fleeing the park when it was clear that park employees were OK, I never red-baited or proposed anything anti-union, unless your ego is so big that you consider anyone disagreeing with you about this post as being anti-union.

  8. I do mean “due diligence.” The concept is not limited to satisfying legal requirements. It also concerns the care that a reasonable person exercises to avoid harm to other persons. In this case, the National Park Service and Delaware North should have informed visitors and potential visitors in advance about the Taft Toe prescribed burn. You say you agree with that premise, which is the main point of my article. I have no clue why you think that is making a mountain out of a molehill, given the very real hazards the fire and the smoke created for visitors.

    I do not reject rational criticism from anonymous trolls. It is the attempts to obscure the issues, the bile, the insults, the red-baiting and the anti-union diatribes that I reject.

    Yes, 48 Hills comments have been mostly anonymous. That is why these comments are dominated by a gaggle of troglodytes whose major passion in life seems to be to attack anybody to the left of Genghis Kahn. And that is why so few people actually participate in these scintillating discussions.

    GarySFBCN, or whoever you are, please feel free to avoid my articles.

  9. I don’t think you mean ‘due diligence.’ “due dil·i·gence – noun – LAW – “reasonable steps taken by a person in order to satisfy a legal requirement, especially in buying or selling something.”

    I agree that visitors should have been warned. I also agree with some who have commented here – you are making a mountain out of a molehill. You seem unhinged.

    You are writing on this blog where most who comment have been anonymous since the beginning and you reject any criticism because of that. That reminds of of tech industry workers who move to SF and refuse to embrace SF’s culture.

    In the future, I’ll know to avoid your articles.

  10. There are many interesting issues about Yosemite, the concessions and National Park Service worthy of discussion.

    Norton addresses none of them, such as the FBI’s secret interrogation center in Wawona where they oppress opprogresives because this is all one big plot against Marc Norton.

  11. So the trolls here have settled on a message. I shouldn’t post on the internet if I “can’t handle” criticism. Laughable. Let me put the shoe on the other foot – trolls who can’t handle revealing who they really are should just, well, let me not be too rude here…

  12. look, here’s free advice: Don’t go around publishing your opinions on the internet if you can’t handle people who don’t heap praise upon you. You seem really sensitive and thin-skinned.

  13. If you can’t take criticism on-line, don’t post on-line. And just because people comment negatively do not make them “trolls”. You’re overly defensive and come across like a donkey’s behind.

  14. You do realize most commenters on the internet are anonymous, right? Attack the message, not the messenger.

  15. “Traumatized”?? Are you effing kidding me? I truly hope for your sake there was a fainting couch nearby.

  16. Yes, there are many issues about the management of our public parks by profit-seeking private companies like Delaware North and Aramark.

    Whether or not the fire was under control, the smoke from the fire was not, and that alone was a significant, man-made health hazard.

    Visitors and potential visitors should have been informed in advance of the planned burn. I wonder if you agree.

  17. The entire notion of out-sourcing park concessions to private mega hospitality conglomerates requires revisiting.

    Although I’ve always wondered when the Xanterrans will get tired of this world and decamp back to their home planet of Xanterra.

  18. Point taken, you didn’t mention Gediman. However your story came across as something one would read on Trip Advisor about how bad the service was. Clearly when you got to Curry the people who work there were not in a panic, not terrified. Perhaps you might have thought things really were under control and also understand that it would likely take awhile before you got an answer. There are many issues about the management of the park under Delaware North and questions as too how the new concessionaire will be managing things. Those would certainly be worthy of a nice investigative piece.

  19. No, your industrial and work and people centered theology is anathema to an ecological understanding and you exemplify those impediments in your piece.

    Oh, noes, nature or nature management was not predictable, pass me my smelling salts I’m having palpitations.

    Why did they not text everyone with a warning?

  20. Ah, more red-baiting. Is your name COINTELPRO by any chance?

    Of course it is not all about me. The focus of the article is on the thousands of visitors in the Valley when the Taft Toe fire was lit, without their being able to make an informed decision about whether or not they wanted to be in Valley breathing smoke and dodging fires.

  21. When trolls lose the argument, they change the subject and obfuscate. Nothing in my article is about the Rim Fire or the need for controlled burns. It is about the National Park Service and Delaware North doing their due diligence by informing visitors and potential visitors about a very real health and safety hazard.

  22. Yeah, Norton, I’m a troll who has no connection to Yosemite and knows nothing of the relevant ecologies.

  23. Fortunately you can avoid Norton and his ilk in Yosemite with a short hike up and out into the wilderness.

  24. The history of the 6% of Yosemite that is not wilderness has been that it has been managed to prevent fire. The draining of the swamp at the west end of the valley near that moraine by humans is precisely what led to the drying out and subsequent forestation of the valley which had been predominantly meadow. With western forests come fires. All of that has allowed fire danger to increase.

    I’d wager that the risk to humans from a massive fire like the Rim Fire due to fuel allowed to accumulate as a result of inhibiting burns is much greater than that of an controlled burn getting away from the Park Service.

    Fire is a natural part of the dry western forest lifecycle. That cycle was interrupted by humans. The cycle is being restarted again by humans via prescribed burns. You’ve chosen to visit a western montane forest. Deal with it.

    You make the issue solely about you and your minor convenience when it is really about putting the Yosemite ecosystem including the Wild and Scenic Merced River first. Instead of considering the ecosystem, you’re fixation on the bad capitalists and the economics to you and the bad capitalists is all that consumes you.

  25. Why is it that anonymous trolls love to ignore the obvious, and try to shift the question at hand with red-baiting, anti-union diatribes and irrelevant commentary?

    Conducting controlled burns is a necessary part of the maintenance of our national parks. I did not suggest otherwise, despite sffoghorn’s innuendo.

    Yosemite Valley is not a wilderness, also despite sffoghorn’s claim. It is visited by millions of people annually.

    Nor was the Taft Toe fire a “natural” occurrence. It was an event planned and executed by the people who are charged with preserving our national parks for benefit of us all. That includes conducting themselves with due regard for safety of visitors, even if it might affect the profits of the likes of Delaware North (and Aramark when they take over next March).

    The question I posed in this article is a simple one:

    Why did the National Park Service and Delaware North not do
    their due diligence by informing visitors and potential visitors about a
    very real health and safety hazard?

  26. Oh, give it a rest. Lots of people use Internet “nics”. And since the other commenters Mel Baker and sffoghorn also disagreed with your take on the incident, you might at least stop and consider that you are way off base.

  27. Mr. Baker, I think you are the one who may need to get yourself under control. The issue isn’t about Scott Gediman, or your relationship with him. (By the way, I never named Gediman in my article.)

    The issue is why the National Park Service and Delaware North did not do their due diligence informing visitors and potential visitors about a very real health and safety hazard.

  28. You really do come across like a self-entitled, urban-dwelling wussy. A little smoke and fire and you throw the mother of all hissy fits. Please do us all a favor and avoid the Sierra Nevada Mountains at all costs.

  29. My God, get yourself under control! I’ve been to Yosemite many, many times including when there were controlled burns which are done to prevent much larger fires. As a working, full-time journalist I’ve spoken many times with Scott Gediman and the other rangers in the P.R. unit and have never had any difficulty getting information. Sorry you had a scary experience, but jeez get a grip.

  30. The one thing that the Park Service has done well has been at recovering from long standing “fire management” policies that allowed fuel to build up in the understory.

    When you visit a national park like Yosemite, you are not visiting Disneyland, you are venturing into the wilderness. There are no guarantees, not everything will be controlled for your convenience.

    The bears, bobcat and deer are not working on union scale for your entertainment.

    For what it is worth, the Park Service just handed over the Yosemite concession to Aramark, Yet Another Massive Capitalist enterprise. I am sure that Norton will complain about them as well. But the point of Yosemite is not to luxuriate in the lodging, rather to direct your feet away from the concentration of tourists in the Valley and up into the wilderness splendor that Makes Yosemite National Park unique.

    Communists just don’t get ecology and wilderness. In that regard they might as well be capitalists themselves, not to mention judeochristians celebrating Man’s Dominion Over Nature.

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