September 18, 2005


Victims of Mojave National Preserve fire say Park Service policies added to toll
Sandi McIntosh, left, and Jim Perry on Sept. 1 help remove debris from a home that was burned by a 70,000-acre fire that swept the Mojave National Preserve in June. Many homes on private land surrounded by the preserve, including Perry's, were destroyed. Photos by K.M. Cannon.

A fence at the driveway to a group of private homes shows the effects of a June fire that swept the Mojave National Preserve.
A burned ridgeline inside the Mojave National Preserve is shown Sept. 1. A fire swept through the 1.6 million-acre park in June.
A sign near the Mid Hills Campground in the Mojave National Preserve is shown burned. The campground was destroyed in a 70,000-acre fire that swept the park in June.
Bud Smith, 73, talks to a reporter on Sept. 1 at his home on private land inside the Mojave National Preserve. Refusing to evacuate during a lightning-sparked fire in June, Smith saved his home with the help of family and firefighters, then supplied water to helicopters and firetrucks.

Las Vegas Review-Journal

They hoped to spend a comfortable retirement in their rural retreats. Instead, they spent the summer picking through ashes to salvage surprisingly meager and melted mementos.

That's the aftermath of many fires, but most of those who lost homes when fire swept the Mojave National Preserve say their property was destroyed as much by bad policy as bad luck. And they blame the National Park Service for it.

"They can call it a preserve, but they haven't actually preserved anything here in the 10 years they've had it," exploded Sandi McIntosh, 61, who says her home and horses escaped mostly undamaged by a stroke of last-minute luck.

A lot of her neighbors weren't so lucky, which was why she stood the morning of Sept. 1 up to her ankles in ashes, helping Richard and Kathy MacPherson clean up the remains of their mobile home.

Sandi picked up a few settings of cutlery and brushed the ashes away, laying them on a table set up beside the ruins to receive any objects still usable.

It was nearly lunchtime, and the morning's work hadn't covered the table. One intact vase. Two antique flatirons. A little of this and that. The MacPhersons estimate their losses in excess of $200,000.

Other neighbors had comparable losses, he said, "But I think we may have been the only ones with any insurance."

In July, soon after the fire, the Park Service estimated the costs of suppression alone at $3.1 million and climbing but has not publicly estimated damages. A dollar value cannot be placed on some damage, loss of beautiful views, wildlife habitat and historical structures.

The fire raised questions about the wisdom of a new fire management plan, expected to go into effect shortly, which would no longer require the Park Service to immediately extinguish all fires in the park, as currently required.

The 1.6 million-acre Mojave Preserve lies entirely within San Bernardino County, Calif., and stretches from the Nevada border to Baker, Calif., and from Interstate 15 on the north to Interstate 40 on the south.

It was created by the California Desert Protection Act, federal legislation passed in 1994, over the bitter objections of elected officials in the county.

Scattered across the federal lands were tracts of private homesteads, including a number of cattle ranches. The Park Service discontinued grazing leases and bought out nearly all the ranches.

In a decade, those who had built vacation homes on the range found themselves surrounded by land either designated wilderness or managed as if it were.

Cattle were gone and wild burros were being removed. After the wettest winter in memory, grass this past spring grew deep with few grazing animals to eat it.

Deer herds shrunk under park management, so the underbrush they feed on also grew thicker. With the onset of hot weather, these fuels became tinder-dry.

On June 22, a spark of lightning in the Hackberry Mountains lit the tinder.

The preserve's small resident firefighting crew soon called for help, and an interagency fire suppression force that eventually included more than 1,100 people from several federal agencies and Southern California counties moved into the park, bringing four firefighting airplanes, four firefighting helicopters, 38 fire engines and dozens of water tender trucks.

There would have been more, but other major fires in California claimed resources.

In the meantime, at least three other fires started elsewhere in the preserve, some merging and some roaring simultaneously on their own courses, constituting an inferno that since has been named the Hackberry Complex.

The 1,100 were not fighting alone; private landowners did what they could to protect their own holdings.

On Cedar Canyon Road, 73-year-old Bud Smith prepared to fight or flee as the moment's circumstances dictated. The first fire started on a Wednesday.

"By Thursday morning I was all packed up and ready to get out of here, and the fire was coming up Black Canyon so fast it covered nine miles that day. I had stuff in the car and the car parked facing the road. We were supposed to be evacuated on Friday, but I didn't go. My kids came out from Las Vegas and helped me fight it. My son and one of his friends and my daughter. ... When they heard I hadn't left, two firetrucks came up and helped us."

Clearing grass and brush as far back from his buildings as time allowed, spraying water from the 11,000 gallons Smith keeps on hand for just that purpose, the small force stood toe-to-toe with the fire at 7 a.m. and fought it to a standstill.

According to neighbors, Smith's stubbornness saved not only his home of 35 years, but every home north of the road.

South of Cedar Canyon Road, however, fire had roared through Round Valley, taking the MacPherson home and the homes of their neighbors. The valiant efforts were not enough.

By June 27, the fires had burned more than 70,000 acres out of the heart of the park, taking at least 12 homes and several unoccupied historic structures.

Dennis Casebier, a historian who operates the East Mojave Heritage Center at a restored 91-year-old schoolhouse in Goffs, just outside the southeast edge of the preserve, railed at the events in his newsletter, the Mojave Road Report.

"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 piƱon/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."

Casebier and others raised pointed questions about Park Service methods of preventing and controlling fires, and answers weren't immediately forthcoming.

As of Sept. 1, most residents believed the preserve firefighting staff had followed a draft fire management plan announced and discussed earlier this year.

That plan called for allowing "natural" fires caused by lightning in designated areas constituting as much as 22 percent of the park to burn at a leisurely pace. Most wondered aloud whether the Park Service lost control of the original Hackberry fire while attempting to do just that.

"That is absolutely false," said Chuck Heard, the preserve's fire management officer. "That fire management plan is not complete, so in the Mojave National Preserve the policy remains full suppression."

Even if a limited-suppression policy ever is approved, Heard continued, "In the heart of summer we would not let it burn in any case. There are very few places in the preserve we would ever allow it in the future. But we have never been allowed to do it."

Mary Martin, superintendent of the preserve, said, "This fire would not have been fought any differently if we had a fire management plan in place, because the area where it occurred would be full suppression in that plan."

The draft fire plan was dated Dec. 20, and the public comment period ended on Jan. 30. Martin said the plan was widely discussed at public meetings even before the draft was written.

"We did factor in the public comments," she said. She added she will consider the experience of this summer's fire in deciding whether to approve the plan as written.

The 84-page plan calls for allowing "fire to resume its natural role in wilderness where natural fire regimes are unaltered, provided that fire does not pose a threat to structures, historic mine sites, or tortoise habitat."

There were suggestions that the fire could have been fought more effectively if the Park Service hadn't habitually managed the preserve for an environmentalist agenda to the exclusion of all other interests.

Bill Postmus, San Bernardino County supervisor for the district containing the preserve, expressed that thought in an Aug. 7 op-ed piece for the Victorville/Barstow Press Dispatch.

In an effort to quiet park opponents, Postmus noted, the Park Service created an advisory commission to include local government representation.

"The commission had a 10-year life, which expired in 2004, but it never met during my tenure as a county supervisor, which began in late 2000," Postmus said. "One of the county's specific inputs was to retain the ranching infrastructure. ... Instead, (the Park Service) set about buying out and getting people off the land almost immediately.

"I suspect that if the ranching families were still in the region, much quicker actions could and would have been taken when the fire first broke out. Part of the obliteration of the ranching culture has also involved the dismantling of all of the range improvement and development projects including a vast system of wells. Their water could have helped fight the fire."

When the Park Service bought out ranchers, all agreed, the ranchers were allowed to remove pumps, pipes, and windmills that formerly replenished water in tanks that now stand empty across the preserve.

But Larry Whalon, acting director of the preserve, said, "We haven't turned off any. The ranchers have." He conceded, "There is no storage system for fighting fires. It would have to be large to make it worthwhile."

Gerald Hillier, now a consultant to San Bernardino County on public land issues but formerly manager of the area for the Bureau of Land Management, said there would be many more working water tanks if the Park Service had wanted them.

"They have actually paid ranchers to go in and salvage their own improvements," he said. "They have removed some that were indeed the property of the United States under the terms of the old BLM leases."

Smith let firefighters use his 11,000-gallon tank to fill pumpkins: portable, collapsible field tanks from which helicopters can quickly fetch water to drop on a fire. And they asked him if he could possibly replenish the supply still faster from his pumps.

"One guy said it was 3 1/2 hours to another water source," Smith said.

Whoever told Smith that was exaggerating the distance, said Norm Walker, the U.S. Forest Service fire chief who commanded the multiagency firefighting force.

"We eventually had enough, considering that we had to hire water tenders and haul it in, and set up pumpkins," Walker said.

The Blair Ranch, the last substantial cattle operation left in the area, allowed helicopters to dip directly from a cattle pond, and the tankers "just about drained" tanks maintained just south of the preserve by the California Department of Transportation for road construction, he said.

But later he added, "Obviously, the less time you wait for water the more efficient your attack is."

All affected complain they've had a hard time finding out exactly how it all happened.

Jim Walker, 64, who owned the historic Stott house and planned to retire there, lost that home and several other buildings. He said he asked both BLM and the Park Service for fire reports. "They told me I would have to request them under the Freedom of Information Act," he said.

Some of the homeowners said the fire reports are required by insurance companies to file claims.

Casebier wrote that the fire could have been stopped as it crossed the de facto firebreak that is Cedar Canyon Road, but firefighters took no stand there.

Others pointed out equipment was available that could have been used to widen the road as a better firebreak.

Chief Walker, however, said both suggestions were impractical.

"The fire did not just lazily cross the road," he said. "It was lying across the road. Imagine smoke and flames going horizontally at that point, across both lanes, and embers and flaming branches going twice as far as that. And to widen that firebreak enough to be effective would have taken days. Nobody had days."

Most Park Service ground rules didn't negatively affect this particular firefighting effort, he said.

"They didn't want us going off road, but we didn't want to because we would have buried our trucks," he said. "There is a good road system around the houses."

The Park Service generally didn't allow long-term fire retardant to be dropped in wilderness areas, so the aerial teams relied on foam, which is made by adding certain chemicals to water. The more effective retardant was allowed to protect homes and man-made structures.

"There were no restrictions placed on us when it came to protecting homes," he said. "Our limitations were other fires and how long it took to get equipment. We ran people far longer than we are supposed to; you're supposed to run no more than 16 hours on and eight off, but nobody came off; some people worked 36 hours straight."

Asked if the homes of residents were sacrificed to Park Service policy, Walker didn't hesitate to answer.

"I guess that might depend on whether you were talking about the overall management of the park or the way the fire was managed," Walker said.

"I can tell you that on the day of the fire, we gave it all we had."