Once Rim Fire is extinguished, work preventing erosion will begin 

click to enlarge Left, Mayor Ed Lee, left, and SFPUC General Manager Harlan Kelly announce on Tuesday that two of San Francisco's three  powerhouses are back online after the Rim Fire, including the Moccasin powerhouse, above. - CHRIS ROBERTS/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Chris Roberts/The S.F. Examiner
  • Left, Mayor Ed Lee, left, and SFPUC General Manager Harlan Kelly announce on Tuesday that two of San Francisco's three powerhouses are back online after the Rim Fire, including the Moccasin powerhouse, above.

GROVELAND — The fire is gone. Now the real work can begin.

The massive Rim Fire, the fourth-largest wildfire in the state's history, burned through some of San Francisco's far-flung water and power infrastructure before torching more than 240,000 acres of national forest and parkland since it began Aug. 17.

With the fire — which Mayor Ed Lee said burned with the intensity of the 1906 conflagration that leveled The City — now 75 percent contained, The City's assets are now out of harm's way, city officials proclaimed Tuesday.

At least from the fire.

Two of The City's three powerhouses, which capture and deliver the hydroelectric energy that powers city buildings, Muni vehicles and San Francisco General Hospital, are back online, with repairs at the third — taken offline as a precaution during the fire's first week — underway, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission General Manager Harlan Kelly said at a news conference held in the company town of Moccasin, which houses the 250 agency employees who maintain The City's power and water supplies.

It's still not known exactly what it will cost to repair the fire's damage to the hydroelectric powerhouses, but Kelly estimated it to be in the millions.

And while the fire burned through only "2 percent" of the Hetch Hetchy watershed in Yosemite National Park — the bulk of the damage is downriver in the Stanislaus National Forest — the entire southern edge of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, San Francisco's main freshwater supply, was burned, according to Cal Fire incident command.

It's still unclear how bad the damage will be to the trees and plants that keep hillsides intact during the winter rainy reason. That will remain unknown until the fire is completely out and erosion-prevention measures can begin, "hopefully" before the winter rains begin, fire officials said.

Some preparations for the winter rains have already begun — like digging trenches on hillsides to direct water flow — but other work, like replanting, can't begin until the fire is entirely out.

"There will be a lot of people working up here for a long time," Rim Fire incident Cmdr. Mike Dueitt said.

Kelly said SFPUC officials have visited O'Shaughnessy Dam and have declared it safe and sound. However, the fire burned entirely around two other SFPUC-managed reservoirs — Cherry Lake and Lake Eleanor, northwest of Hetch Hetchy — where damage assessments have yet to be made, Kelly said.

Fighting the fire cost about $70 million, Dueitt said, and replanting trees, grasses and shrubs and repairing the hillsides will cost the U.S. Forest and Park services another $70 million.

The City's cost is not known but will be in the millions of dollars.

Kelly said he hoped those costs would footed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies and not passed on to ratepayers, but noted it is too early to say.

With the powerhouses offline, The City has so far spent about $860,000 buying power back from a "bank" held in concert with irrigation districts in Modesto and Turlock, with whom San Francisco shares Hetch Hetchy water and power.

The cause of the fire is still unknown. Investigators from the U.S. Forest Service have reached the area where the blaze began but have yet to declare a cause, Dueitt said.

City has stake, but little say, in Sierra forest management

A perfect storm of dry conditions, ample brush and nearly impassable terrain helped make the Rim Fire the fourth-worst wildfire in California history.

At least one of those conditions, however, can be helped by humans.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has the ability to trim brush and scrub from underneath its high-voltage power lines, which weren't badly damaged as a result. The SFPUC also pays the U.S. Forest Service $5 million a year to fund forest management — thinning brush and cutting trees so wildfires aren't quite as bad — but The City has very little say in how that money is used.

And extra money could have made the Rim Fire not quite as bad. As The Los Angeles Times first reported, U.S. Forest Service crews had planned to go through the Stanislaus National Forest to clear brush in the area that eventually burned, but couldn't follow through due to a lack of funds.

Another stroke of unfortunate timing made the Rim Fire worse. A thick stand of relatively young trees, planted following a 1987 wildfire, provided some of the Rim Fire's fuel. Had the fire occurred next year or the year after that, the trees would already have been thinned as scheduled, according to Rim Fire incident Cmdr. Mike Dueitt.

The problem is in Washington, said Patrick Koeple, deputy executive director with the Tuolumne River Trust, a nonprofit that monitors conditions in the Sierras.

Without enough money to go in and clear brush — and without enough money to adequately replant — the area is stuck in a wildfire "cycle," he said.

After a 1987 wildfire in the area, "what grew back was brush and chaparral" that fueled the Rim Fire, he said. "And now we're back at a clean slate where the brush can grow back. The Forest Service is underfunded, plain and simple."

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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