Firefighters battling the stubborn Rim Fire near Yosemite finally contained more than half of the wildfire on Monday, reaching 70 percent containment.
Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant issued the good news early on Labor Day, adding that the Rim Fire has now charred 235,841 acres, or 368 square miles – more than seven times the size of San Francisco.
The containment should only grow, he added, as the weather forecast for Northern California should see cooler temperatures and even some possible rain. Still, the expected full containment date is Sept. 20.
The fire has been burning since Aug. 17 in the Stanislaus National Forest. According to one fire official who is not officially charged with investigating the fire, it's possible that illegal marijuana growers could be to blame.
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Todd McNeal, fire chief in the town of Twain Harte, west of Yosemite, said at an Aug. 23 community meeting, captured on YouTube, that officials "know it's human caused, there’s no lightning in the area. … (We) highly suspect that it might be some sort of illicit grove, marijuana grow-type thing.” His comments come at the 6:24 minute mark of a 20-minute briefing, and he underscores there is no official cause, just that it's "highly suspect."
McNeal did not return a phone call Monday when NBC Bay Area called seeking comment.
Officially, however, there is no cause listed for the fire according to the U.S. Forest Service. On Monday, Rim Fire spokesman Brian Haines told NBC Bay Area that the investigators have still not determined what sparked the blaze, and at this point, the marijuana theory is just "an opinion."
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He did say that federal investigators had pinpointed the origin of the fire: The Jawbone Ridge in Tuolumne County, which sits on Groveland Ranger District land, at the point where the Clavey River and the Tuolumne Wild and Scenic River meet up. That spot, he said, is the focus of the investigation.
As of Monday, the Rim Fire remained the 4th largest wildfire in California's history, edging out a 222,777-acre fire that burned in Ventura County in 1932. The third largest fire is now the Zaca fire in Santa Barbara, which burned more than 240,000 acres in July 2007.
The Rim Fire is just one of seven major wildfires being battled across the state. Berlant said that a new fire ignited Saturday on the Tule Indian Reservation in Tulare County, burning 250 acres.
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Also on Saturday, the smoke in Yosemite Valley was so thick it was difficult to see Yosemite Park's Half Dome. On Sunday, however, air quality in the Valley improved, but people there are still being told to avoid any strenuous outdoor activity.
Some of the nearly 5,000 firefighters, including strike teams from San Francisco and Mountain View, returned home this weekend after spending days on the fire lines.
Despite the containment, a total of 5,500 structures still remained threatened, and so far, 111 buildings were damaged - 11 of them were homes, despite earlier reports that 31 homes had burned.
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Check out an interactive map via Esri.com.