Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Dramatic fire season, but certainly not the nation’s biggest in a decade

About a month ago, misguided headlines announced 2013 as a sensationally big fire season nationally — some called it the worst season in a decade. As the Rim fire burns in California, I’ve heard the statement made on television.

The Rim fire on a media stage in California

The season has been filled with drama, but it’s not the biggest in a decade nationally. Check it on the National Interagency Fire Center web site.

Total fires  and acres burned are both well below the 10-year average. At this rate, the season won’t even match last year.

National Public Radio got it right on Aug. 15 with a story titled: 2013 wildfire season proving to be more mild than wild.

That was two days before the Rim fire started. The Rim is an expensive, sprawling blaze. California, indeed, is having bad fire year, according to Cal Fire. But California hasn’t change the national numbers in a big way.

At the same time, it is still a truly dramatic wildfire year.

The Rim fire in Stanislaus National Forest is one of California’s biggest wildfires on record. It is burning around and in Yosemite National Park.  In Arizona, 19 firefighters tragically died in a fierce wildfire. Many homeowners have been in harm’s way as fires have burned this year.

But, unless there’s a lot more burning in the next several weeks, 2013 will not go down nationally as the most extensive wildfire season in a decade — or even the last few years.

Media outnumbered salmon in this restoration tale

It was compelling to see adult salmon being put into the San Joaquin River on Wednesday to spawn near Fresno for the first time in six decades.

But I hardly noticed one detail until someone mentioned it: The media outnumbered the fish — probably three to one. I saw at the Associated Press, at least one television crew from San Francisco, local television stations and a host of other  photographers. I actually saw only three fish.

Was this event overplayed by environmentalists, river advocates and the media? I think not, but you can understand why some people might have seen it that way.

First the background. The river went dry around 1950 after Friant Dam was built to help the suffering east San Joaquin Valley farmers. It succeeded in saving farmers, but salmon runs died, nature suffered and the river shriveled.

After a long-running lawsuit was settled in 2006, federal and state wildlife agencies began one of the most unusual river and salmon restoration projects in the country. Nobody has brought back salmon to a 350-mile river that had been dry for 60 miles in the middle.

Since 2009, the restoration has been in an experimental phase. Scientists need to learn how the river and fish will react to a renewed flow of water. This event on Wednesday was publicity for one of those experiments.

The state wildlife crew trapped five fish in western Merced County, north of Los Banos, and hauled them all the way to Fresno at Camp Pashayan. One died along the way. Only two of the fish were placed in the river in front of the cameras.

The remaining fish were hauled farther upstream to be released.

So was that the beginning of salmon spawning near Fresno for the first time in more than a half century? Hardly. The state had been trapping and hauling adult salmon since mid-October. This was not a first.

It was, no doubt, an orchestrated media event. And the out-of-town media incorrectly shaded this story like these few fish signaled the start of the full restoration. This was an experiment, not the full restoration.

But it was a nice snapshot in a long-running story about an unusual event in California. This is the farthest south that salmon spawn in North America — an interesting note that I did not see in any stories about this, including my own.