The Rim Fire burns near the Groveland Ranger Station. Credit: www.inciweb.org

The Rim Fire started small enough, on Aug. 17—a 200-acre blaze burning toward a place called Jawbone Ridge from a north-facing slope in the rugged Clavey River canyon, west of California’s Yosemite National Park.

The area was isolated, and no structures were immediately threatened.

By the 19th, local news sites were reporting 2,500 acres burned with evacuations advised for some neighboring communities. By the 22nd, the fire had exploded to more than 53,000 acres, and then it doubled in size the following day as it roared into Yosemite itself, making national headlines.

A video shot from a Channel Islands Air National Guard plane on Aug. 22 shows a towering mushroom cloud of smoke leaning all the way to the horizon, lit gold by flame and low-angle sun, and casting a dark shadow across forested hills. The pilots point out El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall off to the right, then more gravely observe how impressive the fire looks. As they bank towards the blaze, one says, “Wow… that’s kind of creepy.” As they close in to drop a load of fire retardant, with awe: “That is unreal.”

The word is apt for the dramatic flag of smoke and flame unfurling before the pilots’ eyes. And it certainly fits as of Tuesday afternoon (Aug. 27), with the Rim Fire’s footprint now at nearly 180,000 acres, at least 23 structures destroyed, various evacuations in effect, 3,752 people involved with fighting the blaze, well more than $20 million spent, and smoke billowing across the state line into Reno. And despite some progress towards containment (20 percent at last glance), Inciweb predicts continued “very large fire growth due to extremely dry fuels, strong winds and inaccessible terrain. Rapid fire growth and extreme fire behavior are hampering suppression efforts.”

“This fire is burning unlike anything we’ve seen in this area historically,” U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Ashley Taylor told the Los Angeles Times. In the neighboring community of Groveland, the Times reported, people gathered in the middle of the two-lane highway to watch the smoke rise. Nearly all the businesses in town were closed due to the fire, save for the Iron Door Saloon, in operation since 1852, where, “on Friday afternoon, every bar stool was taken. Maps showing the perimeter of the fire were laid out like place mats. People jabbed their fingers at the maps, swapping updates: ‘His shed is gone. But the house is still there.’”

The damage has indirectly reached all the way to San Francisco, nearly 200 miles away. The fire is burning towards the city’s drinking water in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and has already disrupted its supply of hydroelectricity, reports the San Francisco Chronicle:

Two of three power production plants downriver from the reservoir had to shut down before the fire swept through, prompting the city to rely on reciprocal agreements with other utilities and to spend about $600,000 buying supplemental power to make up the shortfall. One of the closed plants was still too dangerous to reach, while crews assessed the damage on the other Sunday afternoon and hoped to have repairs completed Monday. It will not be brought online until transmission lines in the fire zone can be inspected.

So far, though, “Despite ash falling like snowflakes on the reservoir and a thick haze of smoke limiting visibility to 100 feet, the quality of the water (itself) is still good,” reports The Associated Press.

The news of the blaze comes as the U.S. Forest Service grapples with paying for firefighting efforts across the nation in a tight budget year. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than $1 billion has been spent so far on suppression efforts in 2013 (last year’s tab was $1.9 billion). And for the first time since 2008, on Aug. 20, the NIFC raised the nation’s fire preparedness to level 5, meaning that the vast majority of firefighting resources are already committed to blazes—and that additional help may be needed from the National Guard and others.

Just a few days before, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell had ordered an immediate Forest Service spending freeze for restoration programs, employee travel, and other personnel costs to help funnel an additional $600 million into the agency’s suppression account, which had been bled down to a mere $50 million—about half of what’s typically needed to cover a single week at Level 5, reports E&E News (sub required). Such borrowing has happened six other times in the last decade, totaling $2.7 billion. Of that Congress eventually restored $2.3 billion, “but not without disruptions to important agency programs”—many of them the kind that could help lessen fire risks in the future.

The FLAME Act of 2009 was supposed to help head off that dynamic by creating a reserve fund for firefighting, but it doesn’t appear to be working, perhaps because of fluctuating appropriations.

Meanwhile, Tidwell also announced last week that, to meet the terms of the federal sequester, the Forest Service will withhold $18 million in Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act funds for habitat and restoration work, some of which could also potentially make ecosystems more resilient and resistant to megafires in the long run, reports the Associated Press:

Oregon stands to lose the most in the move, with nearly $4 million in reductions, (leaving) the state with about $3.4 million. (Those of us here in) California would lose nearly $2.2 million, leaving it with about $1 million. Idaho is set to lose $1.7 million, Montana nearly $1.3 million and Alaska, about $930,000—nearly half (its) allotment.

“This is a mess, as forecast,” Chris Topik, who directs the Nature Conservancy’s Restoring America’s Forests program, told E&E News in response to the spending freeze. “It shows that we need to get serious about investing in the restoration work that reduces fire risk. We need to get serious about a new way of funding suppression.”

Sarah Gilman is the associate editor at High Country News, from which this was cross-posted.