SACRAMENTO, Calif. - As a gigantic wildfire in and around Yosemite National Park entered its fourth week Saturday, environmental scientists moved in to begin assessing the damage and protecting habitat and waterways before the fall rainy season.
Members of the federal Burned Area Emergency Response team were hiking the rugged Sierra Nevada terrain even as thousands of firefighters still were battling the blaze, now the third-largest wildfire in modern California history.
Federal officials have amassed a team of 50 scientists, more than twice what is usually deployed to assess wildfire damage. With so many people assigned to the job, they hope to have a preliminary report ready in two weeks so remediation can start before the first storms, Alex Janicki, the Stanislaus National Forest BAER response coordinator, said.
Team members are working to identify areas at the highest risk for erosion into streams, the Tuolumne River and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, San Francisco's famously pure water supply.
The wildfire started in the Stanislaus National Forest on Aug. 17 when a hunter's illegal fire swept out of control and has burned 394 square miles of timber, meadows and sensitive wildlife habitat.
It has cost more than $89 million to fight, and officials say it will cost tens of millions of dollars more to repair the environmental damage alone.
About 5 square miles of the burned area is in the watershed of the municipal reservoir serving 2.8 million people - the only one in a national park.