July 26, 2006

Tuffnut Fire News Update


Tuffnut Fire News Updates
July 20, 2006 (Initial Report)
July 26, 2006 (Update)

This fire has been 100% contained

Wildland Fire started on or about 07/20/2006
Cause - Natural (Lightning)
Providence Mtns. (CA)

Latitude 35.037 Longitude -115.509

Status as of 07/26/2006
Acreage - 1321 acres.
Fire is 100% contained
Resources committed - 1 crew, 1 helicopter, 1 helitack, 2 engines, 4 overhead. Total personnel is 47.

Estimated containment date is 7/25/2006.

Updates on fire
Steep terrain, remoteness of location, and high temperatures hampered control efforts.

Lightning caused 100 acre fire with only 5% containment as of 2000 on 7/20/06. Steep terrain and the remoteness of the location is hampering control efforts. Winds are 7-10 mph, tempurature is 106.

Full suppression.

Vegetation affected
Short grass

Partners involved
Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service.

July 21, 2006

Lightning ignites yet another blaze

By Joe Nelson and Guy McCarthy, Staff Writers
Ontario Daily Bulletin

YUCCA VALLEY - Firefighters preparing to go home after battling a 61,000-plus-acre brush fire near Yucca Valley got back into action Thursday when a lightning strike ignited yet another blaze in Joshua Tree National Park.

Lightning struck about 1:30 p.m. in the Covington Flat area of the park. It crept up a hill, crested a ridge and shot down into a canyon, burning toward the southeast tip of Yucca Valley and threatening homes there.

As of 9:30 p.m., it had chewed through 282 acres and burned near the mouth of Black Rock Canyon. Officials ordered 400 breakfasts for hundreds of firefighters who were pulled from the Sawtooth Complex Fire and other blazes for deployment to Joshua Tree.

"This time we had the resources real fast from the Sawtooth (fire)," said Cindy Von Halle, a ranger for Joshua Tree National Park. "Right now we have about 200 firefighters and more are coming."

As night fell, the fire burned in an easterly direction farther into the 794,000-acre park. The blaze was 80 percent contained by 9:30 p.m., and officials expected to have it fully contained by 2 a.m. today.

Residents living on Carmelita Circle in Yucca Valley were advised they might need to evacuate their homes if the fire burned too close, but as of Thursday night, mandatory evacuations had not been ordered.

Pinion Juniper, Pinion Pines, scrub oak, Joshua Trees, Black Brush and a host of other native shrubs stand in the path of the blaze, said Joe Zarki, spokesman for Joshua Tree National Park.

Fires that burned in the park in 1995, 1996, 1998 and 1999 left behind a patchwork of burn areas that could thwart the progress of the fire, Zarki said.

"We'll have to wait and see. It depends on where the wind blows, what the terrain is like and how the air movements affect the fire," Zarki said.

If the fire burns into more vulnerable areas, it could prove disastrous.
"In the unburned zoned area there's quite a bit of fuel that can carry a fire," Zarki said.

Covington Flat Road, also known on some maps as Vermiculate Mine Road, was closed off Thursday to public access. The remainder of the park remained open.

The Covington fire came as a cluster of storm cells passed over the Morongo Basin and San Bernardino Mountains, producing thunder, rain and lightning. Several other brush fires flared up from Thursday afternoon, and a flash-flood warning remained in effect in the Morongo Basin.

The storm threat was expected to diminish overnight and should not pose the threat it did on Thursday, said Philip Gonsalves, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego.

"We're probably still going to get some showers and thunderstorms, but they're going to be more isolated," Gonsalves said.

On Thursday, however, the county went into high alert, sending pre-recorded telephone messages to residents living in flood-prone areas near Yucca Valley where the Sawtooth fire burned, incinerating vegetation that served as ground cover to trap rainwater and deter mudslides and debris flows.

Earlier in the day, about 200 firefighters were cutting a fire break against the 24,695-acre Heart-Millard Fire in the San Gorgonio Wilderness near Coon Creek when rain began falling and lightning ignited at least six small fires, said Rich Phelps, a fire information officer with the U.S. Forest Service.

"When the storm cells came through this afternoon, we pulled our ground crews off," Phelps said, noting that the risk of flash floods was a concern for firefighters who hike through drainage areas.

Nine helicopters and six helitankers dropped water and retardant on the Heart-Millard blaze throughout the day, and about 14.9 miles of fire break still needed to be cut, Phelps said, adding that the fire is not an immediate threat to the Big Bear Valley and is still burning about eight miles southeast of the mountain resort communities.

The Millard Complex Fire north of Cabazon and the 800-acre Heart Fire, originally part of the 61,700-acre Sawtooth Complex Fire near Big Bear Valley, were combined Wednesday, a day after the Sawtooth blaze was declared 100 percent contained. The Heart-Millard Fire was declared 62 percent contained Thursday.

The Millard and Sawtooth fires were ignited by lighting strikes on July 9, and combined killed one man, destroyed more than 85,000 acres of desert terrain, 50 homes, 171 other structures and 191 cars and trucks.

The combination of fire and rain was a double-edged sword for firefighters and residents.

"It could help things as far as the fires go, but it could make debris flows even more dangerous because there's nothing holding the water back," said Dave Dowling, emergency communications manager for the San Bernardino County Fire Department. "There's no ground cover there now, so people need to stay clear of these washes."

Shortly after lightning ignited the fire in Joshua Tree, other lightning strikes were reported. The 100-acre Tuffnut Fire was burning atop a ridge on the west side of Providence Mountain in the Globe Mine area in the Mojave National Preserve.

In Irwin Lake near Lake Arrowhead, lightning struck and area near Highway 38 and State Lane at 1:42 p.m. and burned about one-eighth of an acre before it was contained at 2:02 p.m., a county fire dispatcher said.

July 18, 2006

Experts blame grasses, pollution, temperatures for helping fires

By Andrew Silva, Writer
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin [Ontario, CA]

It's not supposed to happen.

Mojave National Preserve: 71,000 acres in flames a year ago.

Joshua Tree National Park: 14,000 acres burned in 1999.

And in the past week, more than 80,000 acres have gone up in smoke as two large fires merged in the Mojave Desert.

In a pine forest, fire is an integral part of the life cycle and is necessary for a healthy, thriving forest.

But in the desert, flames are an unnatural, unwelcome and destructive force when they roar through Joshua trees, cactuses, juniper and pinyon trees.

"In our lifetime, we won't see it back the way it was," said Larry Whalon, chief of resources management for the Mojave National Preserve.

Desert plants may be the hardiest on earth, able to thrive in blistering temperatures and long stretches without water. The harsh conditions also mean it takes a long time for the plants to grow and establish themselves, usually with wide spaces between them.

Sprawling infernos in the desert are a phenomenon not seen until recent decades.

The obvious culprits are grasses that weren't here 200 years ago. Air pollution and average temperatures that have been creeping higher may also be accomplices.

The arrival of settlers in the 19th century also meant the arrival of non-native grasses that have blanketed the desert floor.

In the past, "a lightning strike had a good chance of hitting bare ground," said Joe Zarki, chief naturalist for Joshua Tree National Park.

Some grasses spread across the landscape once seeds carried by non-native settlers and livestock hit the ground. Others were planted deliberately for cattle grazing.

Native grasses and flowers in the desert tend to dry up and blow away when they die, or they remain isolated in bunches.

The exotic grasses, though, remain standing, even after they die.

"In a good wet year like last year, it'll create a carpet" across the desert floor, Zarki said. "Nowadays, lightning is going to hit these fine fuels that ignite easily."

Before, even if lighting struck a tree or patch of shrubs, that small area would burn but there was no way for the flames to move between plants.

The Sawtooth Complex Fire, which destroyed several dozen homes in Pioneertown, is an example. Drive through the burn area and there's mostly a fine layer of ash on the otherwise bare ground where grasses had carried fire to the widely spaced Joshua trees and other native plants.

"Oaks, juniper, Joshua trees don't appear to do well in response to fire," Zarki said.

The ecosystem that exists in the desert now took hundreds of years to get established. A pine forest will look pretty normal a few decades after a fire.

However, desert trees can take hundreds of years to grow.

If the grasses lead to fires every five, 10 or 15 years, the landscape could be altered permanently in a phenomenon called "type conversion," Zarki said. With frequent fires, the native trees won't be able to re-establish themselves, turning the desert into a scrubby grassland.

"Talking about the natural ecosystem in California is like talking about the dodo bird," said William Patzert, a climatologist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena.

That appears to go for climate as well.

Temperatures have been rising in the West since the 1970s, and many temperature records have been set in recent years.

Southern California, despite near-record rains in the winter of 2004-05, is effectively in its eighth year of drought, Patzert said.

Part of the increase in temperatures is because of sprawling development. Heat is trapped by the hundreds of square miles of concrete and asphalt, creating what have been dubbed "urban heat islands."

Patzert called it Southern California's "extreme makeover."

The Inland Empire has seen a 5-degree jump in average temperature in just 50 years, he said.

Kelly Redmond, a regional climatologist with the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, Nev., said he was skeptical that the temperature increase since 1970 was real.

But after looking more carefully at the data and other climate indicators, such as snow melt and when flowers bloom, he now believes the increase is broad and genuine.

His research indicates temperatures across 11 western states have increased an average of 2 degrees since 1970. June was the warmest in 25 years and July appears to be headed for a record also, he said.

At least part of that increase could be attributable to global climate change, the experts said.

To make matters worse, take blistering temperatures, combine them with non-native grasses and mix in some fertilizer. And air pollution could actually be feeding the grasses and helping them spread.

Air pollution is loaded with nitrogen compounds, providing a readily available fertilizer, some researchers have said.

"Without nitrogen, the grasses aren't doing that well," said Philip Rundel, a biology professor at UCLA. "We're doing a massive fertilization experiment and don't know it."

July 14, 2006

Under Kelso's dusty top layer is vivid history

A boarded-up post office and restored depot dot the landscape in Kelso. The town attracts as many as 400 people a day to explore the Kelso Dunes and the visitor center. Photo by Greg Vojtko / The Press-Enterprise

The Press-Enterprise

KELSO - Tim Duncan was not quick to jump nine years ago when the National Park Service asked him to leave his job as a ranger at the Manassas Battlefield in Virginia and move to the dusty and nearly deserted outpost of Kelso in the Mojave Desert.

He had visited California once on vacation, and drove the desolate stretch between Needles and Barstow.

But he took the assignment, in part because one of the Park Service's attractions has been the opportunity to work all over the country, from Alaska to Virginia, he said.

Duncan, 50, has come to love his home in Kelso, hidden against the Granite Mountains. The nearest civilization is in rural Baker, along Interstate 15, some 30 miles to the northwest.

"I enjoy the quietness, I enjoy the remoteness, I enjoy the terrain," he said. "I enjoy the railroad community and the visitor center, which has just been restored."

He was referring to Kelso's 15 other inhabitants: Union Pacific Railroad employees who maintain the track between Barstow and Las Vegas. And to the two-story rail depot officially reopened in March as a visitor center for the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve.

The visitor center, renovated at a cost of $5.5 million, has fostered something of a renaissance for a town that was founded in 1905 as a water stop for steam-driven trains, boomed as a mining town during World War II, and has been little more than a ghost town ever since.

As many as 400 people a day venture off Interstates 40 and 15 on weekends to sift through the artifacts on display here. They also explore the nearby Kelso Dunes, where weather-polished grains of sand emit an eerie, growling boom sound as they cascade during avalanches.

The only other visitors Duncan sees are the motorists who are detoured through town when traffic accidents prompt the California Highway Patrol to shut down one of the interstates.

"The traffic backs up for 50 miles," Duncan said. "It's a slow crawl, and I have to go out and make sure it keeps moving."

How Kelso Came to Be

James Woolsey, chief of resource interpretation and outreach for the preserve, likes to amuse visitors with the not-so-compelling story of how Kelso got its name.

Three railroad surveyors took turns naming the stops, he said. Only two of them were on hand at the Kelso founding and they decided to throw their names, and the name of the third guy, into a hat and choose one for the town.

The name they drew? "The guy who wasn't there," Woolsey said.

He is not certain how often John Kelso visited his namesake, or whether he ever visited it.

When the first trains started running, Kelso had a small store and a few-dozen residents, including a smattering of gold and silver miners.

Soon after, the railroad built a roundhouse to service them and parked half a dozen extra locomotives to help the engines make it up the grueling 19-mile, 2,000-foot grade to Cima.

"That's what made Kelso," said Theo Packard, 95, who moved to the town with his parents in 1920 and stayed for a quarter century.

"Sometimes, the trains were so long, they had to hitch on two or three helpers to make it," Packard said.

Kelso had about 200 residents then.

"It was just a regular, work-a-day town," he said. "Mostly, we worked."

A Busy Little Place

Packard's father opened a general store that doubled as the post office. There were no saloons.

Packard attended Kelso's one-room school, which closed in the 1970s. The building, which still stands, was home to the town's one big social event: a monthly dance where the railroad workers, ranchers and miners converged to foxtrot and waltz.

"They had a kind of a makeshift orchestra," he said. "My mother played the piano."

The school had one teacher who instructed students through the eighth grade, after which they commuted by train to Barstow or Las Vegas to attend high school.

The massive two-story depot, which would eventually house railroad workers, restaurant employees, and telegraph and baggage workers, was constructed in 1924.

Four passenger trains a day, two each in the early morning and evening, stopped in Kelso to load up with water and feed the passengers.

The telegraph operator was something of a gossip, Packard remembers, and would pass the word when celebrities were on the way. Packard ran down to the station one day to meet silent-movie cowboy Tom Mix and look at his horse in the baggage car.

Kelso's "boom" came at the start of World War II, Woolsey said, when iron ore-mines in the area supplied raw material for the Kaiser Steel plant in Fontana. The plant, in turn, turned out steel for the Liberty ships that ferried beans and bullets to Europe during the war. At one point, the town had 2,000 residents.

By war's end, Kelso was on a track to oblivion. Packard left to seek work for a rail delivery service.

'Tin Cans and String'

Today, Kelso has no general store, no restaurant, no movie theater and still no saloon.

Duncan has two freezers and drives to Las Vegas once a month for supplies. He says it's quicker than going south to Barstow and there is a wider variety of stores, which saves trips.

Only a few of the railroad workers are in town at any given time, he said. Their only entertainment, he said, is what it has always been: They get together every now and then to have dinner.

That isn't all that's stayed the same. The telephone at his ranger station has a scratchy signal and frequently cuts out, like poor cell-phone service.

"The lines, the equipment, everything, is 50 years old," Duncan said. "I guess they don't see the need for improvement. We're on tin cans and string out here."

Not exactly the way he likes it.

Video: A history of Kelso, the once flourishing railroad town in the Mojave Desert

July 12, 2006

Pappy & Harriet's remains standing

Eric Burdon among legends who have taken stage at historic site

Bruce Fessier
The Desert Sun

Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace isn't just a musty historical landmark. It's the pantheon of a vibrant high desert music scene.

Queens of the Stone Age, Eric Burdon, Donovan, Camper Van Beethoven. This is the home venue for rock legends who live in the Morongo Basin.

And that scene was saved on Tuesday when the wildfire passed by Pappy & Harriet's.

When U2 producer singer songwriter Daniel Lanois was performing at the now fire-endangered saloon in 2004, it was almost expected that his friend Burdon would show up. Lanois lives in New Orleans. Burdon sings "The House of the Rising Sun" about New Orleans. So Burdon did show up and he did sang "House of the Rising Sun."

Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin recorded the song "29 Palms." And he stayed at the 29 Palms Inn earlier this year. But he didn't sing in the 29 Palms Inn lounge. He drove to Pappy & Harriet's and sang seven songs at that rustic Western saloon.

Dave Lowery, leader of Camper Van Beethoven and the more recent alt rock band Cracker, is hoping to hold his second annual Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven Campout Sept. 8-9.

Pappy & Harriet's isn't just a place for old cowboys. Its diversity is what makes it so legendary, the public radio station KCRW in Santa Monica often tapes shows for broadcast from there.

Young people, old people, middle-aged hippies. They all mix comfortably at Pappy & Harriet's with an appreciation that the music is honest. It's organic.

It was founded in 1946 by a group of investors including Roy Rogers to serve as a place to make cowboy movies. When television came in and they stopped making "B" Westerns, it fell into disuse, but attracted artists and eccentrics who liked the idea of living in a place that was literally a fantasy land.

A group tried to turn it into an amusement park in the 1960s, but the plans by designer Will Hanson never got off the ground. Tumbleweeds and manufactured amusements just didn't fit.

The '60s troubadour Donovan used to sing there in the late 1970s and early '80s, but the place became known as a biker bar around that time.

Pappy Allen and his wife, Harriet. bought the saloon in the mid-1980s and Harriet ran it by herself after Pappy's death in 1994. But it was Robyn Celia and Linda Krantz who brought in the big-name entertainment and fostered the growth of new talent when they bought the club in 2004.

Now emigrés from Los Angeles and San Francisco are coming to the desert to try out new material at Pappy & Harriet's. The palace offers songwriter showcases and jam sessions with the "house band" Thrift Store All Stars.

July 6, 2006

Fires spark warnings

Gina Tenorio, Staff Writer

Fire crews throughout the county are being vigilant and feeling fortunate.

Despite warm weather and a number of fires - some caused by humans, some by nature - no serious damage has been done, officials say.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the U.S. Forest Service worked together to extinguish the flames before they crept into the San Bernardino National Forest, said Bill Peters, A CDF spokesman.

Dozens of lighting strikes have sparked small fires. In the Mojave National Preserve, a blaze called the Valley View Fire had blackened 40 acres off Cima Road east of Interstate 15, east of Baker on Wednesday.

As of Wednesday evening, it was 80 percent contained, U.S. Forest Service officials said.

In Oak Hills, crews fought a 50-acre fire. On Wednesday, Forest Service personnel fought small fires ignited by more lightning throughout the area, Martinez said.

They've been fortunate the fire season has been moderate but the bottom line for residents is they need to be careful, Peters said.