San Francisco water supply safe for now despite massive wildfire burning near Hetch Hetchy 

click to enlarge Rim Fire, Yosemite
  • Getty Images
  • A firefighter from Ebbetts Pass Fire District uses a hose to cool down hot spots while battling the Rim Fire.

The massive, out-of-control wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park has torched some of the infrastructure that delivers water and power to San Francisco and is currently menacing a city-owned camp.

States of emergency were declared Thursday by Gov. Jerry Brown and Mayor Ed Lee, after the Rim Fire – which began Saturday 3 miles east of Groveland along state Highway 120, the main path to Yosemite from the west – tripled in size overnight to 53,000 acres, or 82 square miles. It was only 2 percent contained. For comparison, San Francisco is about 49 square miles.

Officials said updates on the size and containment of the fire are only given each morning.

No injuries have been reported, but two homes and seven outbuildings have been destroyed. And as of press time, the fire was still “burning very actively” on all sides, according to Trevor Augustino, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

The fire is raging very close to The City’s link to its fresh water supply – Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, located in the northern part of Yosemite – but city officials stressed Thursday that the water is safe for now.

The series of massive pipes that carry fresh water from Hetch Hetchy to 2.6 million customers in the Bay Area is underground – in some cases up to 100 feet underground – and thus not at risk, said San Francisco Public Utilities Commission spokesman Tyrone Jue.

About 85 percent of The City’s freshwater is delivered from Hetch Hetchy, with two smaller reservoirs — Calavaras Reservoir in the East Bay and Crystal Springs in San Mateo County — holding the rest.

Flames did overtake some of the high-voltage lines that deliver hydroelectric power from the O’Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy to San Francisco, and have moved into areas where two SFPUC powerhouses are located.

The Kirkwood and Holm powerhouses were shut down Monday as a precaution, said Jue, adding that it’s currently impossible to know how badly the powerhouses or high-voltage lines have been damaged. Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service, which are jointly managing the fire, are restricting access by both ground and air, Jue said.

The shutdown means some of the renewable energy gleaned from the dam and that powers city-owned buildings and Muni is no longer available, though the powerhouse at Moccasin is still operational.

The City is buying renewable power from the grid to make up the difference, officials said.

About 200 of more than 1,300 firefighters deployed to the blaze are stationed at San Francisco-owned Camp Mather, which was evacuated Monday.

To threaten The City’s water, the fire would have to first tear through Camp Mather, and “we are confident that they will do all they can to protect the campgrounds from destruction,” Recreation and Park Department chief Phil Ginsburg said in a statement.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. Meanwhile, tourists from across the globe are continuing their annual pilgrimages to Yosemite, which is open and fully operational, though about 4 miles of Highway 120 near Groveland remain closed.

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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