Update, 11 a.m., Friday, Sept. 11: Smoke from the Rough Fire is affecting Fresno residents, reports KQED Central Valley Bureau Chief Sasha Khokha, who lives in the city.
"People are joking about how it feels like they're smoking a pack an hour," she said. "It was raining ash this morning when I took my kids to school, and it got into the car, and my kid said, 'I can't breath, we have to get out of here.' It's very palpable; it feels like a curtain of smog that’s trapped us. The sky is bizarrely yellowish-gray."
Khokha said the head pediatric nurse at Children's Hospital told her there's been a 25 percent spike in kids coming in for respiratory problems, and that even children with healthy lungs were coming in with a hacking cough and burning eyes. Fresno Unified School District has been routinely cancelling outdoor activity.
"You should do everything possible to get inside," Jaime Holt, a spokeswoman for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, told Khokha. Holt said the air quality was "probably some of the worst" the district had seen all year.
The fire has so far spared lives and homes. But it has exposed one of the obscured effects that four years of record drought has unleashed here: dangerous drops in air quality that exacerbate public health problems in this region and threaten to choke the quality of life.
“With the fire, even with my inhaler, I’m still wheezing,” Antoinette Wyer, 48, an asthmatic who has lived her whole life here, said at a health clinic on Wednesday. She has kept her 3-year-old grandson inside this week, while a 4-year-old grandson has stayed home from school.
An evacuation warning has been implemented on the following area within Fresno County:
All private lands adjacent to Highway 180 between the Highway 180/Dunlap Road junction east to the 42000 block of Highway 180.
A mandatory evacuation has been implemented on the following area within Fresno County:
All private lands adjacent to Millwood Road beginning at the 40000 block of Millwood Road east to the Millwood Road/Todd Eymann Road junction; then adjacent to Todd Eymann Road southeast to the Todd Eymann Road/Highway 245 junction; then adjacent to Highway 245 northeast to the Highway 245/Highway 180 junction.
The Fresno Bee reported Thursday that the Rough Fire is now bearing down on the famous giant sequoia trees in Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Forest. Those include the Boole Tree, located in Converse Basin, which the National Forest Service says is known as the sixth largest tree in the world.
From the Bee:
Rough fire public information officer Andy Isolano said the Converse Basin, home to a grove of around 60 giant sequoia trees, is now in the active fire area. It’s hard for the nearly 2,200 firefighters to know exactly where the flames are at all times, Isolano said, so they rely on maps provided each morning after planes fly overhead each night. The fire is expected to spread to the basin within 24 hours, but weather and other factors could alter its course.
But Isolano downplayed the threat. "The forest has probably burned like this in the last 500 years, and they’re still standing," he said.
Update, 12:40 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 10: More Rough Fire evacuation orders this morning. The National Park Service has issued an evacuation order that went into effect at 6 a.m. for "park visitors, park employees, concessions staff, and residents of Wilsonia, in the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park. The National Park Service is working with the Sheriff's Departments of both Fresno County and Tulare County to provide the evacuation notifications."
Sequoia Canyon Kings Park said such an order is issued when potential or actual threat to civilian life within one to two hours exists, or when an "incident commander deems it necessary to protect civilians."
In addition, park officials have closed the Grant Grove area.
All access to Highway 180 is closed east of Dunlap Road. Dunlap Road itself is currently open. The Generals Highway (sometimes referred to as Highway 198) is closed at the Red Fir Gate (which is west of Wuksachi Village). Sequoia National Park remains open and visitors can still use the Ash Mountain Entrance Station. Vehicles longer than 22 feet (including trailers) are not advised between Potwisha and Giant Forest Museum.
The Red Cross has opened a shelter at the Sanger Community Center, at 730 Recreation Drive, in Sanger.
Here is video of yesterday's community meeting, held by an official of the Rocky Mountain Incident Management team. The meeting begins five minutes into the stream.
One official at the meeting said, "This fire is doing things to us that with the best available science we have at our disposal, some of the things it's done, based on a math calculation, has been less than a 2 percent probability of an event occurring. And that has become an everyday occurrence at this point."
And here is today's Air Quality Status and Forecast from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. Air quality today is rated as "unhealthy for sensitive groups," from San Joaquin County south to Kern County.
Update, 12:20 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 9: The Fresno County Sheriff's Office has ordered residents of three rural communities near the southwestern front of the Rough Fire to be ready to evacuate immediately as the fire continues to spread.
The new evacuation warnings were issued late Tuesday for areas on both sides of Highway 180 just east of Kings Canyon National Park, including the Hye Armenian Church Camp and the hamlets of Dunlap, Miramonte and Pine Grove. Separately, national park officials advised park employees and visitors in Kings Canyon's Grant Grove area to be ready to evacuate.
The U.S. Forest Service says that as of Wednesday morning, the fire has consumed 103,244 acres -- 161 square miles, or more than triple the area of San Francisco.
The poor air quality, along with a forecast high temperature of 105, prompted the Fresno Unified School District to cancel PE classes and recess for the second day in a row. Outdoor athletic activities, like team practices, have been canceled or moved indoors. The neighboring Clovis school district also canceled outdoor activities.
Update, 9:35 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 8: The Rough Fire, a blaze that is likely to continue burning until the (desperately hoped for) first storms of the wet season, is continuing to spread and has forced new evacuations near Highway 180 east of Fresno and west of Kings Canyon National Park.
As of Tuesday morning, the fire has burned 97,884 acres -- almost exactly 153 square miles, or double the area of Oakland. Federal fire managers report the blaze, which started with a lightning strike at the end of July, is 31 percent contained.
The new evacuation area is on the southwestern front of the fire, north of Highway 180 nearly all the way up to the Kings River -- about 6 miles as the crow flies. It's a very sparsely settled area with several Sierra National Forest campgrounds along the Kings and nearby creeks.
Smoke from the fire, which had been largely trapped in the deep river canyons near its source, has been dispersing north and west through the Sierra Nevada and San Joaquin Valley. The valley's air pollution control district says particulate levels are unhealthy for sensitive groups -- people suffering from heart disease or respiratory conditions, including asthma.
About 1,900 personnel have been assigned to combat the Rough Fire. Managers reported one injury over the weekend -- a member of a hotshot crew who suffered burns while monitoring a control line in a remote area. He was evacuated "conscious and in good spirits," and is said to be in stable condition.
Update, 9:05 a.m. Monday, Sept. 7: Due to smoke, equipment and extra individuals in the area, fire officials are urging caution in driving around the area of the Rough Fire, burning along the King River east of Fresno and west of Kings Canyon National Park. The fire is the largest active blaze in the state and the biggest of 2015.
"Please drive with your headlights on, put cell phones in a location where they will not distract you, and drive slower than normal, " a fire update from InciWeb says.
The fire now stands at 95,183 acres, the vast majority of those in the Sierra National Forest and Sequoia National Forest. Containment is now 31 percent. The fire, which was started by lightning on July 31, has been burning for well over a month.
Update, 9:20 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 1: Briefly: The U.S. Forest Service reports the Rough Fire has now grown to 77,287 acres -- nearly 120 square miles, equivalent to two-thirds the area of the city of San Jose -- and remains 25 percent contained.
One big issue for firefighting: Relatively calm, cool and humid weather has dampened fire activity but has also meant that smoke is settling into river canyons and valleys near Kings Canyon National Park. That's led to very poor air quality and made visibility bad enough that it's limiting flights by helicopters used to drop water on the blaze.
Update, 11 a.m, Monday, Aug. 31: Fire managers reported Monday that the Rough Fire, burning along the King River east of Fresno and just west of Kings Canyon National Park, is now 72,300 acres and 25 percent contained. The main spread of the fire is now east through the Monarch Wilderness and northeast up the Middle Fork of the Kings into a remote area called Little Tehipite Valley. Crews are undertaking structure defense measures in the national park's Cedar Grove area, though the fire is still 5 to 7 miles away from the lodge and other facilities there.
The fire's current acreage makes it California's biggest fire so far in 2015 -- ahead of the now-contained Rocky Fire in Lake County and the River Complex Fire in Trinity County. The Rocky Fire burned just over 69,000 acres; the River Complex has burned just under 69,000 acres and is 45 percent contained.
The Rough and River Complex fires were among dozens of blazes sparked by lightning at the end of July and the beginning of August. The Rocky Fire began July 29 a faulty gas hot-water heater started a building on fire just outside the town of Lower Lake; that blaze ignited nearby vegetation and triggered a conflagration that eventually burned 43 homes and 56 outbuildings.
Update, 9:15 a.m. Monday, Aug. 24: The teams managing the battle against the Rough Fire, east of Fresno along the Kings River, reported significant progress Monday morning:
Area and containment: 49,440 acres, or about 77 square miles, and 17 percent contained. The fire's growth slowed markedly over the weekend, with less than 3,000 additional acres burned since Friday after exponential growth last week. Containment stood at just 3 percent Saturday.
Hume Lake update: Fire managers say that aggressive firefighting tactics around the Hume Lake camp community "have reduced the threat to commercial and residential structures" in the area. The Hume Lake fire blog says that Sunday passed without an immediate threat from the fire, but notes the threat continues for several other facilities in the area.
National park impact: Parts of King Canyon National Park that officials closed because of the fire will begin to reopen Monday. See the official advisory for details.
Update, 11:50 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 23: Developments on the Rough Fire, burning east of Fresno along Kings River and into Kings Canyon National Park:
Acreage: The fire now stands at 47,396 acres, or about 74 square miles. That's equivalent to roughly two-thirds the area of Fresno, a city of about half a million, or to nearly the entire area of Oakland, population 400,000-plus. The fire, which broke out in early August and grew slowly until last weekend, has doubled in size in the past three or four days and is 7 percent contained. In their Sunday morning update, though, fire managers said the blaze grew very little on Saturday, permitting crews to make some progress in containing it.
Damage: Kings Canyon Lodge, a well-known inn along Highway 180, the route to the national park, has burned down. The Fresno Bee reports: "Holes in the ground near the lodge were still smoking as of 5:30 p.m. Friday. Abandoned yellow fire hoses surrounded the wreckage – many of them melted at various portions. Firefighters back-burning on Highway 180 said they had no idea the lodged had burned down. The lodge had remained open until Cedar Grove evacuations on Monday."
National park impact: Some sections of Kings Canyon National Park are temporarily closed, and the air is smoky in much of the area. See the current advisory.
Saving a camp: The Hume Lake Christian Camps, a popular religious retreat for youth and adults, was evacuated earlier this week and has been turned into a base for firefighters. Crews using backfires and aided by air tankers have managed so far to keep the blaze, which has reached the lake's eastern end, from getting to the camp. The camp organization is publishing a detailed blog on the fight to save the facility.
Update, 2:55 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 18: Fire managers report the Rough Fire, burning in the Sierra near the route from Fresno to Kings Canyon National Park, has continued to grow. The current acreage estimate: 23,600, or about 37 square miles. The biggest growth in the fire in the past 24 hours has been to drainages on the northwest side of the blaze.
Original post and radio story (Monday, Aug. 17): Steep, rough terrain was making it hard for firefighters to get a handle Monday on a growing fire raging in and around Kings Canyon National Park, east of Fresno.
KQED’s Sasha Khokha reports the Rough Fire has burned more than 20,000 acres and is still zero percent contained.
Lightning sparked the fire more than two weeks ago, but it took a turn with this weekend’s hot weather.
The fire isn’t threatening any buildings. But officials have shut down the only road into the Cedar Grove area of the park, which meant closing campgrounds and a lodge there.
Smoke from the fire is affecting air quality near some popular giant Sequoia groves and mountain lakes.
"This is actually one of the deepest canyons in North America," Mike Theune, fire information officer with Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, told Khokha. "You’re talking sheer cliff walls. You’re talking slopes that anything rolling on it is going to keep on rolling.
"Being so steep and rugged makes firefighting really tough. This is a very, very challenging fire," he said.
Another challenge, reports Khokha: Because it’s a wilderness area, firefighters have to be light on the land and not use flame retardant that will impact the sensitive watershed.
The fire is currently the fifth largest of more than a dozen wildfires reported across California.
The Fresno Bee reports a mandatory evacuation was ordered in Cedar Grove and "320 campsites, a 20-room lodge and restaurant, campground store, and a pack station were closed."
Fire officials said a strong high pressure system was expected to bring warmer, drier conditions, along with light winds.