July 20, 2005


Needles Desert Star, Needles, CA

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE - Fire professionals and scientists with the National Park Service are still sorting out the aftermath of the Hackberry Complex Fires, a lightning-ignited conflagration that consumed 70,736 acres of the Mojave National Preserve just west of Needles, Calif. in late June.

Raging through pinyon and juniper country at approximately four to six-thousand feet elevation the fires, traced to seven separate starting points, fed on high fuel loads grown from the past winter's generous rains then dried to tinder under a brutal summer sun.

Most of the popular Mid Hills Campground was wiped out. Hole-in-the-Wall Campground and Mitchell Caverns, a state-owned attraction surrounded by the federally-run preserve, were spared and remain open.

The Park Service will hold an open house at Hole-in-the-Wall on Saturday, July 23, from 2 to 4 p.m. The fire and its aftermath will be discussed. The public is encouraged to attend, ask questions and visit with service personnel. From Needles take Interstate 40 west to the Essex Road exit, travel 20 miles north to the Hole-in-the-Wall fire center. Linda Slater, public information officer with the service, stressed the importance of maintaining what emergency responders call "defensible space:" a clear area around homes and outbuildings that would discourage the spread of flames and give firefighters space in which to work.

"The biggest thing would be for people to clear around cabins," Slater said in a July 15 telephone interview. "That's a critical item. We clear around park buildings for that very reason. There's no fire department to protect homes; people need to take the initiative."

"It's a shame to see all the beautiful vegetation lost," Slater allowed, "but another big factor is the private homes and cabins. That's a greater loss for a lot of people."

Advice, including printed resource materials, will be dispensed at the open house. Slater also recommended a Web site: www.firewise.com

"I think it's pretty important to note that we're at the beginning of the fire season, not at the end of it," Slater pointed out. "We have a lot of hot weather ahead, a lot of lightning strikes."

While debate continues about cause and effects, so far service officials seem to feel not much can be done in the way of prevention.

Jim Andre, director of the Granite Mountains Research Center, was quoted in a NPS mailing on the fire as saying: "Fire is very likely a part of the east Mojave. In the pinyon zone, looking at about 30 fires over the last 100 years indicates that it's somewhat frequent. This was a natural ignition, it was a heavy fuel year ... regardless of weeds, regardless of fire suppression history, regardless of grazing, there would have been fuel to burn and we would have had a fire."

Grazing is the point of a lot of controversy since the preserve's creation. Post fire, proponents are pointing out that cows do a pretty fair job of creating defensible space by cropping potential fuel.

Park officials are quick to point out that some of the ignition locations of the Hackberry Complex Fires are within areas where grazing occurs.

Rob and Kate Blair of the 7IL Ranch were among the first to battle the blaze. Between them, the Blairs and park service fire fighters built a half-mile of fire line to keep the fire north of the ranch. They're reported to have stayed up all night putting out flare-ups, and hosted eight "hotshot" crews for several days.

Said Slater: "Several fires did start on areas being grazed. Those areas burned. The idea that grazing over the whole preserve could have prevented the fire is not true."

"There were seven different starts," she continued. "The rangers were out there immediately. There are not many folks in the area. It took awhile to ramp up and get all the resources needed out there to get a handle on it."

Those resources: a reported 1,133 firefighters, five helicopters, 15 engine crews, four air-tankers and two small planes, came with a price tag of $4.5 million and rising.

A bright spot: there was only one lost-time injury. Another: the desert critters seem to have done a good job of surviving the fire; even those too slow to get out of the way.

Slater reported a biologist's evaluation was begun shortly after the fire, mostly because of the threatened desert tortoise.

"Most of the fire burned at higher elevation," Slater said, "but it did kind of finger down into (tortoise) habitat."

"They found live tortoises that came out of their burrows after the fire."

"Another critter is deer, and some bighorn (sheep). We flew over the area after the fire and didn't see any deer carcasses. There was not direct mortality that we're aware of."

It's too soon, she continued, to determine how post-fire regrowth might affect the ungulate population.

It's also too soon to make predictions about erosion, always a concern following a fire. "Right after the fire ended a team came out, looked it over and created a plan," Slater said.

That plan is an inch thick and will continue to develop over the course of the next couple of years. The team did undertake immediate stabilization efforts for things like fire lines, which create pathways for erosion.

Count on controversy, whatever the course chosen in the East Mojave. As Slater put it, "It's amazing how quickly an act of nature, an act of God, becomes a tool for people to use in political battles."