Sometimes it takes a series of related events to really get someone’s attention. In this case the related events are California wildfires and the “someone” is me. There is plenty of objective evidence indicating that 2018 has been, and continues to be, a bad year for wildfires both in California and more generally across the western United States. The relationship that has finally gotten my attention is that several wildfires have had a closer effect on me than in previous years.
Although that may sound like a self-centered statement, it is actually, more simply, a description of the relationship between several of the many wildfires that seem to assault our wilderness areas and other national forests every year with increasing scope and intensity. For example, I downloaded this US fire map about a month ago. Each icon indicates a separate fire incident, and the colored clouds probably indicate smoke plumes being blown eastward by the jet stream. The overwhelming impression from this map was that practically the entire western United States, save the southern part of California’s Central Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area, was on fire.
Since then, some fires have been brought under control but others have broken out. Traditionally, September and October – at the end of the long, dry summer season – are the peak months for wildfires. So this map, as of a full month earlier, was very sobering.
I am fortunate, because the actual effects on me have been trivial compared to people whose homes have been destroyed, several firefighters and civilians who were killed, other people who have been evacuated for safety reasons, the wildlife living in the forests, and the forests themselves along with related flora. In the case of the forests and destroyed homes the effects of wildfires can last for years. The effects on me have been limited to abandoned or rearranged hikes – a minor inconvenience, really – or the realization that a place where I hiked recently has since been damaged by fire, or at least closed due to threat of fire.
So the purpose of this post is to describe several current and recent wildfires, how they’re related to my hiking activities, and how I’ve been impacted. I must say that my strongest reaction is a profound sadness regarding the more severe effects on others.
A recent statewide fire map is shown here. While not as busy as the US map above, it still shows something like 18 major fires in progress within California. Only one of the fires shown is fully contained, but it will continue to burn internally for some time – probably until Fall rain and snow begin.
One of the most recent fires to break out is the Delta fire, which began on 5 September 2018 2 miles north of Lakehead, in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Shasta County. In just three days it has grown – “exploded,” according to some news stories – to nearly 37,000 acres, which is about 58 square miles. No containment is being reported, which generally means 0% containment. (Containment refers to robust perimeter fire break lines that the fire can be “reasonably expected” not to jump across.) Early on, the fire jumped across I-5, and this major north-south route is closed for about 50 miles. Note that the fire isn’t this large, but the closures, especially for through traffic, are from either end of a suitable detour on non-affected roads. About a dozen big rigs were abandoned on the I-5 roadway and several of them have burned (I believe their drivers were all safely evacuated). Mandatory evacuations affect portions of Shasta and Trinity Counties and evacuation warnings affect portions of Siskiyou County.
Some of the current wildfires are being managed by Cal Fire and others are being managed by interagency incident management teams and reported on InciWeb, which is part of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. This InciWeb map shows the areas of the Delta (left) and Hirz (right) fires. Apparently the two fire areas are about to join. The Hirz fire started on 9 August 2018 and grew to its current size of just over 46,000 acres, or 72 square miles. It is reported to be 89% contained.
I believe that the Hirz fire area mainly involves remote areas, so any evacuations have involved campgrounds and local roads which are now (temporarily) closed. The Hirz fire resulted in the closure of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) for 31 miles between Ash Camp and I-5. As it turns out, I hiked that section in two day hikes (see here and here) last Fall, and I hiked from Bartle Gap to Ash Camp, just east of the closure, in June of this year.
The Delta fire has extended the local area trail and park closures. The PCT is now closed through Castle Crags State Park – the entire park is closed – for another 25 miles to Gumboot Trailhead. I spent three days hiking in and near the park in June, including the new PCT closure area. I should note that these areas are closed due to threat of fire, but the PCT itself and Castle Crags State Park itself have not been burned – thankfully.
The origins of the Delta and Hirz fires are believed to be human, though specific causes are still under investigation.
Another map, shown here, shows how close the Delta and Hirz fires are to the area burned by the Carr fire. At over 229,000 acres, or 359 square miles, this fire was one of the largest and most destructive wildfires this season. Nearly 1100 residences were destroyed and almost 200 others damaged, in addition to commercial structures and outbuildings. There were 3 firefighter fatalities. Hundreds of firefighters took about 6 weeks to fully contain the fire, which still smolders within its interior. It appears from this map that the current perimeter of the Delta fire is only about 3 miles, at its closest approach, to the perimeter of the Carr fire. That’s pretty close!
Some 220 miles southwest there are two other fires that have impacted me a bit more directly. The first and larger is the Donnell fire, which started on 1 August 2018 and has grown to 36,400 acres, or 57 square miles, in the Stanislaus National Forest and its Carson-Iceberg Wilderness just west of Sonora Pass, at the confluence of Alpine, Tuolumne, and Mono Counties. As of 8 September 2018 it is reported to be 87% contained. Some 54 structures and 81 minor structures have been destroyed. For at least 2 weeks, if not longer, the PCT has been closed between Sonora Pass (at CA-108) and Ebbetts Pass (at CA-4), a 31-mile stretch. I have hiked all of this section except for about 2.5 miles just north of Sonora Pass. Two day hikes (see here and here) were staged from a campground on Clark Fork Rd which has been closed throughout the fire and, I fear, very likely damaged.
I had been hoping to be able to hike the 2.5-mile gap earlier in the week, but the PCT was still closed and there were prominent “Do Not Enter” signs posted, as well as yellow tape across the trail entry points at the Sonora Pass trailhead parking area. Although I did check out the trailhead, I abandoned the hike. Instead, I drove part way down CA-108 east, toward US-395, to the Leavitt Meadows trailhead where I’d identified a “Plan B” hike. After I completed the hike I continued down CA-108 to US-395. Along the way I noticed what looked like a smoke plume, a bit orange around the edges, north of CA-108. When I got to Sonora Junction I found that US-395 was closed just north of the intersection, and a wildfire was clearly visible. I later learned that the fire had started only about two hours before I got there. The CHP personnel on-site staffing the road closure seemed as interested as I was in taking pictures of the fire, which was clearly visible from the road closure point.
I had been planning to meet up with a hiking buddy later in the evening and, the next day, to hike south from Sonora Pass on the PCT. After several phone calls and conversations with the CHP personnel, though, we agreed to abandon that hike. The fire situation was just too unpredictable. Once we’d made our decision I drove back up CA-108 over Sonora Pass to return to the Bay Area. As I gained elevation the sun approached sunset, and the sky got more and more orange due to the angle of the sun and to the smoke and haze in the air.
Although the air was somewhat better at the 9500-foot elevation of Sonora Pass, I was more and more convinced we’d made the right decision to abandon the next day’s hike. When I could get to the internet I learned that the new fire had been named the Boot fire. Sometime during the day we would have been hiking, CA-108 was closed from US-395 to somewhere west of Sonora Pass. If I’d done the planned out-and-back day hike, by the time I returned to my car it would have been within the closed section of highway. This became an even better reason to be glad we’d cancelled the hike!
As shown on the map above, the Boot fire is much smaller in area than the Donnell fire. As of 8 September the area is just under 7000 acres, or 11 square miles. The area east of the Pacific Crest is in Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. A more detailed map is shown here, showing that the fire has jumped both US-395 and Burcham Flat Rd to its east. In accordance with the usual prevailing wind direction it is spreading to the east. It is just 3% contained.
Earlier there were mandatory evacuations of two campgrounds and a US Marine Training Center along CA-108 – including the campground located at the trailhead of my 4 September hike.
With all of the destruction, and the loss of life and property and forest, is there good news? I believe there is. Of course, the lives lost cannot be recovered or replaced. But at least some of the structures can be rebuilt or replaced. The forest itself will recover over time, as it is amazingly resilient. In the spring I visited a North Bay Area open space that had been heavily damaged in one of last Fall’s devastating wildfires. I was pleasantly surprised to see how many wildflowers seemed to be thriving less than 6 months later. Yes, some of those flowers do especially well in the aftermath of a wildfire. But the larger flora, such as shrubs and trees – some of them, at least – will seed themselves and in that manner regrow the forest. This is hopeful, as long as a new fire doesn’t come through too soon.
On a more mundane and personal note, as I’ve been writing this post and checking web sites for up-to-date information on the specific fires I’ve discussed, I’ve noted that US-395 and CA-108 are now open again in the area of the Boot fire. And today the Donnell fire web page announced that the PCT is open again north of Sonora Pass. Of course this could change again if warranted, but I believe that the US Forest Service closures are treated conservatively and the strong expectation is that the re-opened areas will be able to remain open. This is an important public-facing step in the fire recovery.