June 27, 2005

Mojave fire draws shock, anger

Flames consume 67,000 acres and destroy five residences and two cabins built in the 1800s

Frank Sparks Looks over what's left of his four-bedroom house in Round Valley after it was consumed by the Mojave National Preserve wildfire.
Photo submitted by Richard MacPherson

Daily Press, Victorville, CA

"The old way is being destroyed," Dennis Casebier said.

He remembers the "old way." Days when cattle grazed, juniper and pinyon pine trees flourished, and deer drank from water drawn from beneath the parched desert floor by ranchers. In the last week fire has swept through more than 67,000 acres of the 1.4 million acre Mojave National Preserve destroying much of the old.

Dry grasses here in what used to be the heart of cattle country were ignited by lightning Wednesday and converged into one across a massive area between Interstates 15 and 40 east of the Nevada border. The fire has scorched a path from the Gold and the Round valleys on the west along the New York Mountains on the north to the edge of the Lanfair Valley to the east, said Greg Cleveland, spokesman for the Southern California Interagency Incident Management Team One.

"We haven't seen a fire of this extent for centuries," said Robert Fulton, executive director of the California State University Desert Study Center at Zzyzx Road. "Those of us in the know knew that this was going to be a high fire risk year."

As of Sunday afternoon five residences were lost, two cabins built in the 1800s and six trailers/structures and additional outbuildings were destroyed. "A couple of those buildings that were burned were historical sites, ranch sites from the 1800s," Cleveland said.

Evacuations were still in affect for the Round Valley and Fourth of July Canyon areas. Determinations on letting residents back in those areas will be made Monday, Cleveland said. At the height of the fire more than 1,000 firefighters and numerous apparatus including half a dozen helicopters were brought to bear on the flames, which late Sunday were 65 percent contained. Officials anticipated 100 percent containment by Monday night.

The fire started and remained in lands above 4,000 feet. Of concern to firefighters were abandoned mine shafts and unexploded ordinances left behind by troops training for World War II. As of late Sunday there were no reports of injury, Cleveland said.

Many residents expressed anger toward park management. "It's National Park Service management," said Casebier, executive director of the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association, which owns 640 acres lost to fire in Gold Valley and additional acreage scattered throughout the preserve. "They have gotten rid of the cattle out here as fast as they could. They got rid of all the burros and now they have shut off the water. There is a price to pay for all this and now we are payin' it."

Others see it as nature's way.

"When you take cattle off the range the fuels grow and it increases your fire potential. That is a fact, but we had a 100-year rain this year therefore we had a 100-year fire. Everyone wants to point their finger and say this is someone's fault," said Kate Blair, whose family runs the last remaining ranch within the preserve — on 350,000 acres a hundred miles east of Barstow. "There could have been thousands of cattle here and the same thing would have happened. It is just one of those acts of nature — those acts of God — it just blew up so fast they couldn't get the resources on it fast enough."

Frank Sparks owns 10 acres of land 6,000 feet above sea level in the Round Valley. "This fire has just devastated people," he said. Lost to the flames was his four-room house, trailer, water tanks and several out buildings. He estimated his losses at $50,000, but could only express sorrow for the loss of all that surrounded his property.

"Twenty- to 30-foot pinyon pines and junipers and there is nothing there now. It will take at least 100 years for it to grow back with trees and stuff," Sparks said.

Like many other residents of the preserve he blames the park service, which took over control of the preserve more than a decade ago from the Bureau of Land management, for the devastation.

"I was kind of pissed off at the park service. They have had the attitude that the original people that are there shouldn't be there and they have tried to buy everybody out," Sparks said. "Their theory is it is Mother Nature's fire, but now they have just about terminated all the animal life, the bird life, the turtle life in the Eastern Mojave."

Sixty-year-old Richard MacPherson planned on retiring on his 80 acres in the Round Valley, about eight miles from Hole in the Wall, but now his dream has turned to ash. "The whole thing has just blown us away so bad," MacPherson said.

He estimated his losses at well over $100,000. The total includes a mobile home, two cargo containers, a tractor, generators and solar panels.

When he and his wife visited the property Friday, the scene was one of utter devastation. "The juniper and sage brush are all gone. It will never be (replaced) in my and my grandson's lifetime. They grow very, very slowly," he said.

Fulton, who owns 40 acres in the preserve, said about one-fifth of his property was scathed. In areas were the fire moved slowly and burnt into the roots the junipers won't return for hundreds of years, he said.

"If the fuel load was not too substantial and swept through many of the trees at least in part will survive," he said. "It is going to be a mixed bag in areas where everything will be burned off and take decades to recover." How animals, such as the Desert Tortoise fared, will have to wait until after the smoke clears and studies undertaken, he said.

Though fire of this magnitude is rare here the risk of even greater fire looms. Many areas of the preserve are still green and have yet to dry in the summer heat. "We haven't even started the fire season," Casebier said. "I felt sure we would have a disaster before the season was over, but I never thought it would come before the fire season."