View of the week 9/30/14 – Donner Summit from Beacon Hill

This week we hiked up to the top of Beacon Hill which is the Soda Springs ski hill in the Donner Summit area. It was just after the first snow of the season. Here is a 360° view of the summit.

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Beaver family on the summit

About this same time two years ago our picture of the week was of a beaver that had taken up residence in Lake Van Norden. Over those two years we have heard from many people about their own sightings of the industrious rodent out in the lake and wetlands. Last year while on one of our many paddles out on the lake, my wife Linda thought she saw a “little” beaver swimming around in the shallows. No one else in the group saw it and we never got a picture so this sighting was only a tantalizing clue.

Dawn at Lake Van Norden from the dam pano3 9-23-14

This time of the year is one of the best for catching great sunrises over Lake Van Norden and so I have been spending many of the dawns at the dam spillway for the last week. It turns out that dawn is the best time to catch the beaver coming back to it’s lodge after a hard nights work. So I was not surprised when I spotted the tell tale streak on the glassy surface of the lake that told me the beaver was coming home. What did surprise me was that the beaver seemed to have lost a lot of weight. I have seen the beaver pretty close up over the years and it is a good sized adult.

Young beaver swimming in Lake Van Norden-32 9-24-14


What I was seeing however was an animal only about a third of the size. It immedicately became clear that this was in fact a different beaver and obviously much younger. Linda’s sighting was confirmed, there now appeared to be a family in the meadow. About 5 minutes later I spotted another streak coming in and again to my surprise it was not an adult but another young beaver. It was not until about 20 minutes later that the adult (I presume mom) finally came back to the lodge. The following day at sunrise, I observed the exact same chain of events.

Beaver swimming in Lake Van Norden-74 9-23-14


I have heard from many of the old-timers that they used to see beaver out in the Summit Valley in the past. It looks like there is now a well established family living in the lake taking advantage of all that yummy willow that grows in the wetlands. So you might want to keep an eye out if you’re down by the lake (especially early in the morning) to spot one or more of the lakes largest residents.

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The King Fire – why Donner Summit should be concerned

Smokey sunset over Lake Dulzura at Serene Lakes-02 8-23-13For the last week the summit has been inundated with heavy smoke from the King fire which was an arson started fire near Pollock Pines along Highway 50. Unfortunately for the summit we lie northwest of the fire and the prevailing winds have been from the southwest. As the fires progressed towards the summit heavy smoke preceded it. On Wednesday, Sept 17, the smoke was so thick that it was completely dark by 4 pm in the afternoon. In addition the whole summit was coated with a layer of ash. Miserable is the word that describes it best.

While the smoke has made life on the summit uncomfortable, it is not the real worry about this fire. In a previous post discussing the threat of wildfire on the summit, I described a situation in which a wildfire approaching from the south (or southwest) that came up through French Meadow and into the Cedars would be the worst case scenario for Serene Lakes. In the map below it is clear that the King fire could fit this scenario to a T. One of the reasons this fire was so big and so fast is that is burning up a fuel corridor that has not burned for the 100 years they have been keeping records. Unlike the American Fire down in Foresthill last year that would have had to burn though forest that had already had significant fuel reduction due to previous fires such as the Star Fire in 2001, the King Fire is burning through that 100 year growth.Coupled with one of the worst drought years in recent memory, this fire virtually exploded up the canyons of the South Fork of the American River as it ravaged fuel that has been building up for a century. That is one reson that it covered over 24 miles in 3 days.

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Unfortunately, that same fuel corridor continues directly north from French Meadow up over the Foresthill Ridge and down into the Cedars. The scary thing is that with the right kind of winds temperature and low humidity, once the fire gets to the Cedars it has the potential to charge up Serena Creek Gorge and up through Onion Creek to threaten the community of Serene Lakes. In a normal snow year, the trees would still contain significant moisture even at this time of the year, but with the low snow this year, the trees are all showing drought stress and will be less resistant to buring. If the fire does get to the Cedars, Serene Lakes will come under the threat of hot embers carried forward of the main fire. These embers are the real danger because they land on wooden decks and patio furniture and start cabins on fire.

Fortunately, the firefighting agencies have also read the maps and they are currently sending men and equipment to create breaks and backfires to prevent the fire from getting past its current bottleneck between French Meadow and Hell Hole Reservoirs. We are also fortunate that the weather has cooperated with relatively cool temperatures and shifting wind to facilitate the efforts of the firefighters. And there is even a prediction of some rain next week. All of these factors could significantly improve the chances of containing the fire.

However. Assuming the King fire is stopped this time, we should take this as a wake up call that if we continue with the drought, the southern corridor will present a continuing threat to the summit from wildfires.

Useful Links for following the progress of the fire:

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