US wildfire closing in water source

2013-08-27 07:29
Residents had just minutes to evacuate in front of the fast moving fire. (Kurt Wilson, Missoulian, AP, file)

Residents had just minutes to evacuate in front of the fast moving fire. (Kurt Wilson, Missoulian, AP, file)

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Tuolumne City - A raging wildfire in Yosemite National Park rained ash on the reservoir that is the chief source of San Francisco's pure drinking water, and utility officials on Monday scrambled to send more water toward the metropolitan area before it becomes tainted.

Nearly 3 700 fire-fighters battled the approximately 650km² blaze. They reported modest progress, saying the fire was 15% contained.

Utility officials monitored the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir for clarity and used a massive new $4.6bnn gravity-operated pipeline system to move water quickly to reservoirs closer to San Francisco. The Hetch Hetchy supplies water to 2.6 million people in the Bay area, 240km away.

"We're taking advantage that the water we're receiving is still of good quality," said Harlan Kelly jnr, general manager of the city's Public Utilities Commission. "We're bringing down as much water as possible and replenishing all of the local reservoirs."

At the same time, utility officials gave assurances that they have a six-month supply of water in reservoirs near the Bay area.

So far the ash that has been raining onto the Hetch Hetchy has not sunk as far as the intake valves, which are about halfway down the 90m O'Shaughnessy Dam. Utility officials said that the ash is non-toxic but that the city will begin filtering water for customers if problems are detected. That could cost more.

Power cut

On Monday the fire was still several kilometres away from the steep granite canyon where the reservoir is nestled, but several spot fires were burning closer, and fire-fighters were protecting hydroelectric transmission lines and other utility facilities.

"Obviously we're paying close attention to the city's water supply," said Glen Stratton, an operations chief on the fire suppression team.

Power generation at the reservoir was shut down last week so that fire-fighters would not be imperilled by live wires. San Francisco is buying replacement power from other sources to run City Hall and other municipal buildings.

It has been at least 17 years since fire ravaged the northernmost stretch of Yosemite that is under siege.

Park officials cleared brush and set sprinklers on two groves of giant sequoias that were 11km to 16km away from the fire's front lines, said park spokesperson Scott Gediman. While sequoias have a chemical in their bark to help them resist fire, they can be damaged when flames move through slowly.

The fire has swept through steep Sierra Nevada river canyons and stands of thick oak and pine, closing in on Tuolumne City and other mountain communities. It has confounded ground crews with its 90m walls of flame and the way it has jumped from treetop to treetop.

The US Forest Service said the fire was threatening about 4 500 structures and destroyed at least 23.

Rugged terrain, strong winds and bone-dry conditions have hampered fire-fighters' efforts to contain the blaze, which began on 17 August. The cause has not been determined.

- AP

Read more on:    us  |  environment  |  fires
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