My Testomony on the Rim Fire to the
U.S. House of Representatives
Today I had the honor of testifying in Washington DC at the U.S. House of Representatives Safe Climate Caucus Forum to discuss the link between catastrophic wildfires like the Rim Fire and climate change. I will write more about my experience in our nation’s capital and about the specific actions we can all help advocate for in the next few days. In the meantime, here are my remarks — please let me know what you think:
Statement from Emily Dondero, Sonora, CA
Hello, my name is Emily Dondero, I am from Sonora, a small town in Tuolumne County, California. Sonora is a gateway town to the Stanislaus National Forest and one of the closest towns to Yosemite National Park. My town, county and the Park were greatly impacted by the Rim Fire. As I sit here, the Rim Fire continues to burn.
The fire started more than four weeks ago, but Sonora continues to be impacted by smoke and we still see a huge smoke cloud on the horizon of our mountain line. Currently 400 square miles, more than 255,000 acres,have burned, an area more than 6 times the size of the District of Columbia.
I grew up in the Central Sierra Nevada. People from this region realize fires are a part of life, as with earthquakes and hurricanes in other regions, but the Rim Fire is exceptional. It is the biggest fire I have experienced in my lifetime; it is currently the third largest fire in California’s recorded history, and the largest ever in the Sierra Nevada.
The fire is 81% contained and the cost has reached $111million (a figure that goes up every day). There has been a tremendous response to battle the fire: more than 5,000 firefighters from 48 states were fighting at one point. Many of the firefighters that continue to battle the fire are my neighbors, my friends and family.
The area of the Rim Fire took place in the watershed and forests that sustain our rural economy. My friends, family and community use the rivers for rafting and swimming; we use the forests for hiking, to graze cattle and to support our local logging industry.
We have suffered many losses. The fire caused the displacement of wildlife; we lost timber that would have brought economic prosperity to our town; we lost trees that could have generated electricity via a biomass facility.
The Rim Fire also put old groves of giant trees at risk, some of which are over 3000 years old. Moreover, the Stanislaus Forest and Yosemite National Park contain a series of reservoirs and dams that provide the main water and power supplies for the city of San Francisco and more than 2.4 million people in the Bay area. During the Rim Fire San Francisco turned this energy supply off, buying energy from the market and at one point there was a concern about possible contamination of San Francisco’s drinking water.
At a community level, smoke and flames from the fire forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes, and closed schools and businesses in Tuolumne County for weeks.
Smoke from the Rim Fire also caused the cancellation of annual events that our communities rely on for income, and led tens of thousands of visitors to cancel planned vacations and trips.
The poor air quality impacted communities hundreds of miles away, across the western United States. During the first week of the fire I dropped my sister-in-law off at college in Reno, Nevada, but the smoke there was so bad that many of her first college activities were canceled.
All of this together — the magnitude of the damage, the extent of the smoke, the community and personal impacts, the risk to San Francisco’s energy and water supply — served to remind my community of how connected we all are.
John Muir said it best: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
The Rim Fire illustrates the severity of fires that scientific experts anticipate will become more common as a result of climate change. Experts say this is just a foretaste of major fires to come, across the United States, as altered forest ecology due to hotter and dryer conditions result in larger, more destructive, and more intense fires. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to put out the
Rim Fire, and the costs will continue due to the loss of businesses, water storage capacity, hydropower production, and restoration costs.
But the good news is there are opportunities where money can be spent up front so that we are prepared for the drier and hotter conditions that create fires the size of the Rim Fire. We have the opportunity to enhance our forest management, and invest in upper watershed care which would help protect us from future climate disasters while improving local economies, creating jobs, generating renewable energy and insuring clean drinking water for millions of Americans.
It is my hope that my voice today has inspired the sense of urgency needed so that we can work together to protect our communities, forests and watersheds from the threat of climate change.