August 4, 2005

The Great Mojave National Preserve Fire

22-27 June 2005

Between 22 and 27 June 2005 a fire that will change the crown of the East Mojave forever destroyed more than 70,000 acres. Before it was over, more than 1,100 fire fighters and associated equipment, aircraft, and support vehicles were involved. It is always difficult to estimate the cost of something like this, but the authorities involved are already admitting over $4,000,000 just to "fight" the fire ... and then there'll be rehabilitation and restoration costs.

Starting out with the good news (or "best" news I guess since none of it is good), I consider it remarkable they were able to contain the Hackberry Fire to the mountain range of that name. I was concerned the fire would get into Lanfair Valley. It didn't. Of course we have the rest of the fire season to be concerned about.

The fire destroyed at least 50% of the piñon & juniper habitat in the East Mojave. Included were historic piñons that were hundreds of years old that were used by Indians in prehistoric times as a source of pine nuts. In that sense these trees were more than simply part of the botanical landscape. And it must be understood that these trees will not be back in my lifetime, or in the lifetime of my children, or my children's children's lifetime. It might be noted that the fire burned only 70,000 acres out of the 1,600,000 acre preserve. But that 70,000 acres likely included half or more of the piñon/juniper habitat. It was part of the crown that gave the high country of the East Mojave such great natural charm. For many of us, the East Mojave will never be the same. We are left with our memories and the photos on file in Goffs.

The fire also consumed innumerable priceless historical sites. And when I say "consumed" I mean they are gone - not even much in the way of ashes. These include Bob Hollimon's home site, Pettit's Well, the Stotts Stamp Mill site, part of the Government Holes Corrals, Barnett Mine, up to a hundred other mine sites, and much more. These things are gone. They will never come back. When you combine these losses with the losses of cultural resources deliberately destroyed through the action of the National Park Service, it can be seen the preserve that started out so rich in that regard will soon be destitute of historical sites. I used to think the information and photographs we are collecting here at Goffs would serve as an interpretive adjunct to the historical sites themselves. Instead, our information and photographs will, in many cases, be all there is.

Residences were consumed by the fire in Round Valley. The fire entered the valley from the S and SW. I have no way of knowing whether that phase of the fire could have been prevented. The destruction is too complete and of course MNP NPS filters and spins any facts that come out. Anyway, a number of residences were completely and utterly destroyed. The landscape was completely changed from one of a lush piñon/juniper region to something that looks like it is on the moon. Many use the word "moonscape."

Mid Hills Campground was mostly destroyed. As I understand it (the way in is blocked by MNP NPS so I haven't actually seen it), only one tier of camp sites remains. Mid Hills represents 50% of the camp grounds in the MNP and the most popular one, especially by experienced desert campers. I imagine some grand new plan will be needed to make up the difference.

Hardly a thing can be found in the more intensely burned areas. Jo Ann and I noted three weeks after the burn a complete absence of lizards and even insects while walking across a badly burned area in Round Valley. The charred remains of rabbits and smaller rodents that couldn't get out of the way are encountered here and there. More agile critters likely fared better.

To exacerbate the situation, on Friday 22 July and again on Sunday 24 July heavy rains fell in the Round Valley/Gold Valley region. The rain served to soften the bleak black coloration of the countryside, but the black slurry rushed down the hill sides forming raging torrents that washed the road out through the narrows in Black Canyon and did other damage. We can expect that to continue. The rain extended out some into Lanfair Valley which might help with the dryness there. (Later note: rains have continued in this area up to the time of writing - 3 August 2005.)

As we leave this fire behind us, we must worry about what lies ahead. We are maybe a month into the fire season with two or more months ahead. There's much yet to burn in the East Mojave. My most urgent worries would be Lanfair Valley and Cima Dome. Keep your fingers crossed on these. It has already been demonstrated that the force and will available to confront fires in the East Mojave is not sufficient to stop them.

As to the Mojave Desert Heritage & Cultural Association and its properties in the East Mojave, none were burned. President Chris Ervin and Executive Director Dennis Casebier each have personal property in Round Valley that was very badly burned - or, the phrase is, "the land is toast." Several of our long-time members and close friends lost their residences in this fire.

Mojave National Preserve is attempting to come out of this looking like it was not a failure and making it appear they have a grip on things. On Saturday 23 July 2005 they hosted a get-together amongst their "neighbors" to "share information about the recent fire, discuss concerns, and learn how to prepare for future fires and other emergencies." Although I do not commonly attend affairs like this, considering them to be mainly a waste of time, I decided to go to this one for two reasons: (1) Because I wasn't invited and yet I own four pieces of land in the preserve and the Goffs Cultural Center shares a border with the preserve, and, (2) I had a house guest who wanted to attend because he, too, owns land in the preserve.

Park Service is putting as good a face on this as they can. Comments like "we did all that was humanly possible," "it was an act of God," "it was the wettest winter on record and hence the undergrowth expanded to an unusual extent," "there was too much dead material on the ground and it needed to be burned." Every once in awhile MNP NPS tries the approach of "the fire was started naturally so it is OK" but that doesn't fly, especially with people who really care about the East Mojave and those who lost their homes or cabins. This meeting was definitely a propaganda and posturing affair.

As it turned out a large number of people were there and we all did get to visit with many of our acquaintances. You could get along OK at this meeting unless you made the slightest suggestion that the response to the fire was less than perfect. Yet there was an undercurrent from the "neighbors" pointing to poor management practices and other bungling that permitted the fire to become much larger than it might have been. For example the things I heard at this meeting included: (1) There were arguments among the various factions in the command center at various points as whether to fight the fire or to just let it burn - valuable time was lost in the discussions. (2) Fire fighting units were held back because of uncertainties about whether they were supposed to drive in wilderness. (3) At the onset it was thought water would be available in the big tank at the mouth of Carruthers Canyon, but it was dry - as were many other potential water reserves around Lanfair Valley (this because MNP NPS has cut off all the waters previously maintained by ranchers). They had to wait up to five hours for water to be hauled in. (4) Communications between various elements of the huge fire-fighting force were poor. (5) The formal fire plan drawn up last year by MNP NPS was a waste of time. (6) There were major errors in certain of the multi-colored maps MNP NPS had drawn up, but when "neighbors" attempted to comment on that (or anything else for that matter) the MNP NPS people became very defensive. (7) While the fire was raging there was government equipment including a front loader with a blade being used to tear out corrals and fence lines only a few miles from the fire but this equipment was not brought into play. (8) Someone had heard from a fire fighter that certain properties were to be protected at all costs, while others received little or no attention. (9) A critical group of fire fighters were not informed there were residences in 4th of July Canyon which placed the residents at risk. We'll likely never know the truth about these things because of the standard NPS practice of withholding data (just make a formal request for something sometime and you'll find out what stonewalling and the shell game really are).

However, the data provided by MNP NPS (just for show and tell, you couldn't take it home) made one scenario clear that might well have gone another way. I'll try to explain.

The fire came into Round Valley from the south. It went down both sides of the valley and was an inferno along Black Canyon Road. It was heading for Cedar Canyon Road which was a natural fire break to prevent it from going farther north into the southern end of the New York Mountains. As the fire approached the northern end of the valley and Cedar Canyon Road, it slacked off - that is, the inferno died down as the fire approached the natural barrier of Cedar Canyon Road. That was the place to make the stand. But that was not done. By the time the fire reached Cedar Canyon Road there were just two small relatively harmless fingers to stop, one just east of Black Canyon Road and the other over near Rock Spring. But the fire was permitted to go on.

Having been over that ground several times since then, it can be seen the fire might have been stopped there. There are places in that area where the fire was stopped naturally by a small two-tracker desert backroad. And most of that area didn't burn at all. It is still green. Anyone who wants to, can go out and see that. Or you can see it on the special multi-colored maps MNP NPS has prepared. Why a stand wasn't made here is a question for the people who have all the data (including command structures &c) and we all know MNP NPS are reluctant to share data with us lay people. My guess would be it was an error on the part of those in direct charge and that when the inferno that had been experienced in the southern part of the valley started to fade, just at that moment when a decision should have been made to make a stand, someone faltered.

As a comparison, we can take a look at the same Cedar Canyon Road a little to the west. The fire burned hard from the south right up to Cedar Canyon Road and was stopped there, thus clearly showing the Cedar Canyon Road had the potential as a fire break to stop the fire. Instead, a little to the east in Cedar Canyon, it was permitted to cross the road and continue around Pinto Valley and into the New York Mountains sacrificing additional tens of thousands of acres of piñon/juniper habitat. I asked one fire fighter why, if they felt Cedar Canyon Road itself wasn't enough of a fire break, they didn't use a blade (like bulldozers or front loaders) to widen the fire break and he said the use of such blades for this purpose was against "park" policy. He quickly reversed himself saying there weren't any available anyway, although we all have knowledge that there is a perfectly good front loader nearby being used to destroy fence lines and corrals.

There is no question on my part about the quality of these fire fighters. Likely they are the best that can be had. They worked hard, faced some danger, went without sleep, did a good job as they were told, and made a lot of money in five days. But as with a military engagement (and I wouldn't make this analogy except a MNP NPS person did at the open house) you can have the best soldiers in the world and lose the battle if they are not given the right orders at the right time. The ability to sense out what the right order is at the right moment is what leads to success and makes a brilliant field commander. Anyway, the two fingers of fire coming down the central part of Round Valley were permitted to cross Cedar Canyon Road with the loss of more piñon/juniper habitat and creating a major threat to 4th of July Canyon (which was mostly saved by the fire fighters).

On 21 April 2005, almost two months to the day before the MNP Fire started, MNP Superintendent Mary Martin was here for a meeting. I asked her a question: "What do you plan to do when the big fire starts?" With a great show of confidence, she replied: "We have a plan, we'll implement the plan - do you want a copy?" I said "yes" and she subsequently sent me one. Through the days of the great fire, I wondered how many people were sitting around thumbing through this tome - none I hope. To face up to a great challenge like this fire, you don't need a detailed plan. You need to know what to do and you need to have the courage to do it - truly great people win. Others fall by the wayside studying their plans. Following are just a couple of paragraphs from that plan:



Opportunities for Wildland Fire Use

Fire is not thought to play as significant a role historically in the Mojave Desert as it does in other western ecosystems, most notably the southern chaparral or Sierran mixed conifer zones. Within the true Mojave Desert vegetation types, small infrequent fires characteristic of the historic fire regime are a function of the low fuel loads and wide spacing that characterizes the Mojave Desert flora. Within the Mojave Preserve, however, a number of vegetative communities reflect a transition between Mojave and Sonoran or Great Basin desert types. These communities do support fire and their historic fire regimes and characteristic fire adaptations differ from true Mojave plant communities. Lightning ignitions do occur and resulting fires are a natural, albeit relatively infrequent, disturbance regime.

The objective for wildland fire use within the Mojave National Preserve is to allow the natural process of fire to occur with minimal interference, thus fostering landscape and biotic diversity. Acceptable results include the creation of vegetative mosaics and edges, removal of decadent shrubs and grasses to encourage growth of new and vigorous individuals, promotion of nutrient cycling, and creation of improved short and long-term foraging opportunities for certain species of animals.

Fires from natural ignitions will be allowed to burn within given areas and under specific circumstances where there are minimal values at risk. Approximately 342,927 acres are zoned for fire use, including portions of all Fire Management Units except the Cima Unit. In all cases, fire use zones are coincident with designated wilderness. In these areas, a timely suppression response would be unlikely or has the potential to result in adverse impact to wilderness values. Natural ignitions in these areas are expected to be infrequent and isolated with fire spread contained by natural barriers. Fire use will only be implemented where the current spot weather forecasts indicate no wind events that could cause spread of spotting that would pose a risk to life, property, or sensitive resources. A number of pre-determining factors would also be weighed, including natural preparedness levels, air quality restrictions, and current local resource availability. Maximum manageable area per wildland fire use incident will not exceed 200 acres. In all cases, wildland fire use incidents will be monitored by fire personnel. The fire management strategy will transition from fire use to suppression when a) conditions change, b) the fire threatens to exceed the maximum manageable area, c) or the fire poses a threat to other values.

It can be seen from these words that MNP NPS doesn't (or didn't) really understand the power of a wildfire. Their tremendously exaggerated opinion of themselves and their abilities, precludes them from seeing the truth. Then apparently the National Park Service heritage prevents them from speaking the truth when things go wrong. (I believe it is a bigger problem than just our local Mojave National Preserve.)

The two paragraphs quoted above raise many questions. One question that comes to my mind from my own experience that reflects a misguided policy on the part of MNP NPS has to do with the prohibition against burning "dead and down" in campfires. If you want a campfire in the MNP, you must bring in your own wood and fire pan. Maybe in other parks that makes some sense. I've been camping in the East Mojave for over forty years and frequently I have used the same camping spot many times. Just as a matter of course and concern about the possibility of fire, I would clean up around my camp site. I even got to bringing along a small rake so I could get the weeds from under larger bushes. This undergrowth facilitates the spread of a wildfire in the desert and it serves to ignite the larger bushes. Over a period of time my camping areas would be neat and tidy for some distance around. I always had open camp fires and never had a problem. Under NPS management (and we've had ten years of that now) that isn't permitted. In fact, if you even looked like you wanted to gather a piece of dead and down wood for a fire you'd be approached by Big Brother armed to the teeth and ready to haul you off to jail. So they would prefer to burn 70,000 acres at a time?

Early in the fire, I guess before MNP NPS people realized the wildfire was out of control, you'd hear words from NPS people like: "It is a natural event so we will let it burn." Or that no fire suppression efforts would take place until it was out of wilderness. In the early stages, it was not necessarily viewed as a bad thing. One MNP NPS person spoke in very defensive words about the naturalness of the fire and went on to swoon: "I am thrilled (not my word) to be part of such a dramatic event." The word "thrilled" stuck in my mind. How about being "appalled?" or how about feeling remorse or even guilt?

I don't especially mean to say that if MNP NPS had permitted burning of "dead and down" the outcome of this fire would have been any different. How could I know? But it does point up how inappropriate many of the regulations they bring with them from other parks have no application in the desert. And, from the very beginning, MNP NPS has steadfastly refused to listen to any desert expert or resident. They still seem not to understand that there are many people out here (permanent residents and visitors) that know a lot more about this place than they do.

Another inflammatory issue is to suggest in the presence of MNP NPS people that the removal of cattle and burros from the East Mojave made any difference. The point is that if cattle had been present they would have eaten much of the grass and other fuel making it more difficult for the fire to spread. This of course reflects on another disaster MNP NPS is responsible for, i.e., removal of cattle from the East Mojave. There are, however, cattle yet on the 7IL Ranch, so MNP NPS is quick to point out that fires burned in areas where cattle are yet grazing. And that is true. Yet you don't have to be a rocket scientist to deduce that if cattle have grazed an area, that area will be less susceptible to fire. But, with characteristic behavior, MNP NPS seems to be totally unable to be objective about any issue that reflects upon them in any way. If you carry that thinking another step, then it is safe to say there is no scientific basis for anything they say or do since objectivity is the essence of science. And I believe that to be the case. There is no person involved in this trained in science that is free to speak the truth.

Now that the fire is over, MNP NPS is busy making reports of all the damage. They are even compiling lists of cultural resources. This isn't because they care about those resources, it is because they can now apply for funds for restoration. Funds that would be outside their normal budget process. I'd be surprised if this doesn't amount to another four million. And what good will it do? You cannot replace things that are priceless.

Thus ends the first decade of National Park Service management of the East Mojave. And this fire is just one more in a long ten-year list of disasters out here. I don't know if we can stand another ten years. And yet NPS guardianship is touted as the highest level of protection the nation can provide.

Life could be so much nicer for MNP NPS, and everyone around them, if they could just kick back and accept the reality of their situation in the East Mojave. If they could accept that they are the Johnny-come-latelys here. That nothing is gained by their deceit ... their unwillingness to be honest and straightforward ... their difficulty with accepting and respecting the multitude of people who have vested interests here.

One bottom line that seems clear to many who understand the East Mojave is that this area should never have been put under the management of the National Park Service. The area was doing just fine under BLM management and it should be changed back. Senator Dianne Feinstein and her colleagues, the vast majority of the news media, and the multitude of Dark Ages People (Enviros) were all wrong. And to prove that point we are privileged to watch the destruction of the East Mojave before our very eyes with no way to stop it.

Final note. I've agonized over this report for more than a week. That has given me an opportunity to show it to others, including people who were involved in the fire in official capacities. There is general concurrence of the major points described here, including failures in coordination and management and especially in the confusion contributed by faltering leadership on the part of MNP NPS. An investigation by an unbiased third party is in order.

Dennis G. Casebier
Goffs Schoolhouse
37198 Lanfair Road G-15
Essex, California 92332