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.

Click on map for larger view

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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Sometimes you just have to get away

Even on this beautiful summit, sometimes you just have to get away. So last week we hooked up the trailer, put the kayaks on the roof racks, and headed down one of our favorite drives, down Highway 395 to Lee Vining. Lee Vining canyon is the gateway to the east side of Yosemite and Mono Lake sits right at the foot of the canyon.

The first day it was a little hazy in the valley so we headed up the Tioga grade past Tuolumne Meadows to Lake Tenaya. Kayaking this spectacutlar high sierra lake made famous by Ansel Adams had been a goal of ours for the last few years. It was a perfect day and we put in on the east end of the lake and did a lazy paddle around the entire lake. It is a special treat to be at lake level and be surrounded by the granite domes and peaks of this special part of the Sierras. We recommend this easy paddle to everyone that enjoys the outdoors. Just make sure you pick a day with no winds.


The next day we were rewarded with clear visibility over the valley and Mono Lake. We have been fortunate to have beautiful days of kayaking on Mono Lake before and this was another great day. No wind and clear skies. We drove out to the South Tufa area where we put in the kayaks at Navy Beach. Kayaking through the Tufa is a like a Disneyland ride. The Tufa formations form hundreds of pinnacles and turrets like small castles in the lake. We had to keep our distance from a noisy Osprey chick that was still in its nest on the top of one of the turrets. This is another must do kayaking trip that we can highly recommend.


We also had one other adventure at the South Tufa area. We brought along our camera drone and flew it over the tufa formations. It was a completely different way to see these strange formations. Here is some video of that fly over. Make sure you view this full frame to get the best effect.

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Finally some data and survey says…

Readers of this site know that there has been considerable controversy concerning the original trail plan developed by the Truckee Donner Land Trust for the Royal Gorge area. Several posts have been published on this site discussing the plan and supporting the multi-use policy adopted by TDLT (See the following posts 1, 2 , 3, 4).

trailcameracollageThe controversy is rooted in the arguments primarily set forth by a group of hikers that proposes that hikers and mountain bikers can not use the same trails without negative conflict. The group has demanded that more trails be designating as single use for hiking only. The basis of the conflict arguments comes from other open space areas that have experienced negative conflicts (Marin County springs to mind). It has been our prediction, and the contention of TDLT and many others that the Royal Gorge area has the capacity in open space and trail availability to handle the relatively low user population that would be using the area, without significant conflict. The problem with this prediction was that there was no real data on the level of trail use in the area. As in many controversies, without data predictions can abound, including those of Armageddon and the end of life as we know it (tic).

This summer (June-August 2014) we carried out a trail monitoring survey using a motion triggered trail camera to gather representative data on the level of trail use in the Royal Gorge area. We urge everyone to download the survey and examine the data for yourselves. We think the data is clear in supporting the prediction that the area has ample capacity to support conflict free multi-use, put we invite everyone see the data and draw their own conclusions.

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