GROVELAND, Calif. — On Day 10 of the Rim fire — even as the blaze scorched its way deeper into the northern end of Yosemite National Park — firefighters got their first small break Monday against massive forces of nature.
As the fire reached higher elevations, climbing out of steep ravines, crews could take their stand on more level ground. Huge air tankers could finally drop retardant on accessible ridges.
The fire has charred a swath of nearly 161,000 acres — including about 21,000 acres inside the park. It has destroyed at least 23 structures, and threatens two groves of giant sequoias and historical structures in the famed park. But about 25 miles away, the tourist magnet of Yosemite Valley remained safe, surrounded by its famed granite walls.
The fire is burning hotter and faster than any in modern Sierra Nevada history, firefighters say. Officials say it is the California wildfire they have warned about for years, as modern firefighting techniques have snuffed out forest fires, allowing fuel to build up on the mountain floor.
"This is it. This is the big one," Yosemite Fire Chief Kelly Martin said.
Yet containment reached 20% — up from 7% Sunday.
"The fire will burn until the snow flies," said Tom Medema, a Yosemite National Park interpretive ranger. "But today, we finally had a chance to box it in."
The most hopeful sign was written in the sky.
For the last week, each afternoon has brought a towering plume of smoke rising over the flames. Inside the plume are lightning and hail, and when the plume collapses, it sends wind pushing the fire in all directions. They call from noon to 5 p.m. the burning hours.
On Monday, the weather changed slightly — an inversion layer kept the smoke thick and low just a little longer — but it was enough to chop the plume down to half its size.
"Today we can finally fight the fire on our terms, said Gary Wuchner, Yosemite National Park's fire specialist.
From the Rim of the World vista point on California 120, he looked out over a wide swath of the fire's footprint.
It's a spot where tourists often pull over to take photos of the Tuolumne River and mountains in the distance. There was a kiosk giving the history of fires in the area, but it burned to the ground this week. Still standing were two stone monuments to firefighters killed in wildfires in the area — one in 1987, one in 2004.
"This is hallowed ground to firefighters," Wuchner said. "We have bad history here."
The needles on four nearby Ponderosa pines were swept straight back, frozen in the direction the fire pushed them. Far off to the northeast, smoke rose above the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and around Pilot Peak, a fire lookout tower that is staffed each summer. Due north, the edge of Jawbone Ridge looked like it had been outlined with a black marker where the fire had first spilled over.
Power lines stretched overhead from still standing towers. But the electricity had been cut. On a hill above the river was the only circle of green in sight: Drew Meadow, the base camp for more than 2,000 firefighters. It has now been attacked by the fire from three sides.
Wuchner's radio crackled constantly.
"Need retardant drops immediately," a voice said.
The fight at the park is to save a historic ranger station, stables, lakeside campsites and two groves of giant sequoias. The ancient trees have withstood many fires over the centuries.
The fear is that this fire, with so much unnatural fuel sending flames higher, could get to the top of the trees and kill them. Wuchner said they had sprinklers dampening the tops of the sequoias and had wrapped all nearby structures in fireproof material. They do not use fire retardant in the national park. When there are lightning fires within the park's boundaries, officials let them burn, unless they are threatening communities.
"When it comes to fighting the fire within the park," Wuchner said, "what we're banking on is all the fires that came before."
Times staff writer Robert J. Lopez in Los Angeles contributed to this report. Marcum reported from Groveland, Schaefer and Serna from Los Angeles.