Monday, July 28, 2008

The North Fork Fire

Above: Looking south from Big Valley Bluff to Tadpole Canyon
Photo by Ron Gould

After weeks and weeks of smoke, the fires in and around the American River Canyon are mostly out. Today I joined Ron Gould for a visit to Big Valley Bluff, a grand eminence, the El Capitan of the North Fork, rising 3500 feet from the river, and near the eastern margins of the burned area.

We drove to Emigrant Gap, hung a right, and followed Forest Road 19 south, past the North Fork of the North Fork, past the East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork, past Texas Hill, where we lost the pavement. Soon thereafter we began seeing evidence of the fire, which had encompassed an area of 20,000 acres.

Apparently Forest Road 19 had been used as a firebreak, and "backfires" had been set on the canyon side of the road. From
bulldozer scars I had seen miles away on Sawtooth Ridge and Humbug Ridge, I feared what I would find along the road to Big Valley Bluff. However, for the most part I was pleasantly surprised. The backfires, in particular, had mostly burned nice and cool, leaving all larger trees alive, and even most smaller trees.

The issue of bulldozer use on the fire has been complicated somewhat by what seems to be something in the way of what Tahoe National Forest terms a "hazard tree removal project," and various bulldozed paths radiated away from the road, and various piles of sawlogs were stacked along the road. There also seemed to be "staging areas" which had been bulldozed clear, here and there. Nothing seemed too extreme or heavy-handed, although I confess to a slow burn of hatred for bulldozers which has been building in my heart for many years. I begin to lament every square foot of forestland which is torn and trampled by the loud and stinking beasts.

Reaching the summit of the Bluff, we finally saw areas which had burned wildly, and it was impressive. In particular, the upper reaches of the Iowa Hill Canal, around Tadpole Canyon and the Beacroft Trail, had been hit hard. The Big Brush, an artifact of a fire decades ago, is gone. Erased. And large areas of forest nearby had been killed.

Also, a good two or three miles of forested canyon flanking the American River Trail had burned, and not in a cool, ground-creeping fire, but in an all-consuming crown fire.

It will be interesting to watch these parts of the canyon regenerate. I have little doubt but that much of the brush will stump-sprout, and by this time next summer there may be a froth of green over some of the burned area.

We hiked down to a certain slaty cliff-top, where I told Ron about the Fluttering Rocks.

It happens that if one is on a high-enough cliff with flat-enough rocks (a thin shard of slate is ideal), and if one throws the flat shard flat and spinning sharply like a Frisbee, far away from the cliff, so it will fall a long way ...

Then it will certainly happen that at first the shard will retain its horizontal orientation; and it will certainly happen that it will
gradually tilt to one side, and begin knifing steeply down in a vertical orientation, ever faster; and once in ten throws, I told Ron, it will happen that, as it knifes down, it will begin to flutter rapidly, a chaotic tumbling motion which beats the air in an audible, rhythmic, whipping susurration, and *it slows down.*

After a time I cast around for a shard of slate and found a perfect piece, three inches in diameter, nearly round in outline, and less than half an inch thick. I gave it a strong toss into the vastness of the canyon, where it could fall free for a thousand feet.

Sure enough, about six hundred feet down, it began fluttering, and slowed down. It is a marvelous thing to see.

While out at the Bluff we saw smoke from the big fire in Mariposa drifting north and seemingly crossing the Sierra crest right at the head of the North Fork. We also saw smoke from the fires farther north in a long white mass along the Coast Range up in Mendocino County. In fact, it was remarkably clear for a summer day, with fires still burning in many places; we could see Mt. Diablo, Mt. St. Helena, and Cobb Mountain, rising above the general line of the Coast Range, the Sutter Buttes, and even parts of the Sacramento Valley floor.

It was quite an interesting visit to Big Valley Bluff, one of the great scenic overlooks in California.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow - the south side of the canyon looks blasted. I was up on Big Valley Bluff last week and there was too much smoke from the other fires filling the canyon to see across it from there eastward. I guess I need to take a trip up Foresthill Rd. and see what the north side looks like. It's not too bad up top, as you observed.

Enjoyed your blog entry - as well as your other writings on the North Fork American.