Out West student blog

Not For the Faint of Heart

One of my housemates, my neighbor and I left the park to escape the smoke for a bit, and had to snap a pic with the iconic sign.

By Emily Wilson
B.A. History, 2020
Yosemite Archives



Life at Yosemite is not for the faint of heart.

Some of my friends visited me the weekend of the fire, and we swam and explored part of the park while ash fell from the sky. Don't worry – the air quality wasn't too unhealthy by that point. (Photo credit: Sam Lee)
On my first day of work, my supervisor warned me that he sometimes stumbles across a rattlesnake when he enters the warehouse where the park stores the archives, and he also told me how some of the mice carry hantavirus. The night before, when I moved into El Portal, where a third of the park employees live, my housemates and I informed each other where we keep important documents in case of a wildfire evacuation.

While I have yet to have a run-in with a rattlesnake, at around 10:30 pm on Friday, July 13th, one of my housemates called to let me know that she was stuck in Mariposa (the nearest large town) because of a wildfire that closed the highway. She asked me to prep for an evacuation, just in case.

A few minutes later, the power went out.

With a low phone battery and a fire a few miles away, I stuffed my housemate’s personal docs and my own in a backpack, curled up on the couch, and waited to see if we would be evacuated.

By Tuesday, the smoke inversion layer was so thick you could not see the mountains surrounding the town. The power went out again around noon, and the house became so hot that it was unbearable. To escape, my housemates and I gathered outside. Breathing unhealthy air was preferable.

Animation of the progress of the Ferguson fire. Click for interactive map. (Visualization credit: EcoWest/Bill Lane Center for the American West)

We watched the blaze engulf the ridge just across from our house, the flames periodically intensifying rapidly as a tree burned. That night, the crescent moon was a crimson gash in a sky aglow from the Ferguson Fire.

We watched the blaze engulf the ridge just across from our house, the flames periodically intensifying rapidly as a tree burned. That night, the crescent moon was a crimson gash in a sky aglow from the Ferguson Fire.

I managed to evacuate on Wednesday, but El Portal was officially evacuated that Friday, after the fire crossed the Merced River. The order has yet to be lifted.

• •

One of my favorite parts of working for the Yosemite Archives is how I get to see the park in a different way. My primary project is digitizing the thousands of images in the collection by matching negatives and prints, researching images’ copyright status, and scanning negatives. I love seeing glimpses of the park from the past, with some photos dating to the late 19th century. I also help process park records, rehouse photographs, and relax maps, each activity offering me a way to see the park in a manner most cannot. It’s exciting and a privilege, and I look forward to returning.

Unfortunately, I have also seen Yosemite in the age of a warming climate. Wildfires in the American West are getting worse, and the increasingly hot, dry summers we’ve experienced here certainly play a role. Further, the proliferation of dead pine trees destroyed by the bark beetle, combined with the area’s rough terrain, has made the fire almost impossible for firefighters to combat – the fire is both intense and often inaccessible. I ask that you think of them and the thousands of other firefighters working to contain blazes throughout the region.

Yes, Yosemite has paved roads and bathrooms, but it is still in the wilderness, where sometimes events occur that you could never predict or truly understand.

Again, this place is not for the faint of heart.

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