Yosemite Firefall phenomenon is ‘treacherous and unsafe’ this year

People are trekking through waist-deep snow to capture the jaw-dropping spectacle

Helen Coffey
Wednesday 20 February 2019 12:53
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Yosemite's firefall phenomenon

The phenomenon known as firefall has arrived in Yosemite National Park for 2019, but the conditions this year are “treacherous and unsafe”, according to locals.

The spectacle occurs for two weeks in February when conditions are right, with Horsetail Fall on the east side of El Capitan transformed into what looks like a stream of lava as the sunset hits it at the right angle.

Thousands of firefall chasers descend upon the park each year for a chance of seeing – and photographing – the ethereal visual effect.

However, conditions must be just right: clear skies and enough rainfall for the falls to flow.

This year, the weather isn’t stopping the firefall from happening, but it is making the pilgrimage to see it laborious and potentially dangerous.

“What would have been a 10-minute walk normally turned into a two-hour trek through waist-deep snow,” photographer Ryan Fitzsimons told SFGate of a recent trip to see the phenomenon. “People were falling in the river. Our clothes were soaked by the time we got to a viewing spot.”

He added: “I’m not recovered yet and I’m in good shape. If I had known how it was going to be, I would have trained for it.

“There were people there in jeans. I can’t imagine what they would have done if someone had a heart attack.

“My dad couldn’t have done it.”

Photographer Andy Heitz was making his first trip to see the firefall.

“Once parked, you either have to brave trudging through thigh-deep snow for nearly a mile to get to the vantage points, or walk on the road and beg for forgiveness from the rangers, who were threatening $280 fines,” he said.

He stuck to the road and had to wait for five hours in the extreme cold to keep his spot to get a clear shot.

The situation has arisen as a result of the park’s decision to keep numbers manageable by blocking parking on Southside Drive. The closest open parking area is Yosemite Falls Parking Area, more than a mile from the closest viewing points. The extra distance requires trudging through deep snow.

“We’ve had over 1,000 cars pile up on Southside Drive in past years, and it becomes a safety hazard,” said Yosemite National Park spokesperson Jamie Richards of the decision.

“We’ve gotten positive feedback on our end and we are monitoring closely for safety,” Richards said.

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The firefall should continue to be visible from 20 to 24 February, although park staff warn there’s no guarantee that visitors will see it on any given day.

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