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American Fire Damage to Western States Trail

Pockets of vegetation are still actively burning within the containment lines of the American Fire. The area is under a forest closure order for now – burning or smoldering stumps, underground stump holes, barely standing trees and soil erosion make for a danger zone even for highly trained firefighters.

A portion of the Western States Trail was affected by the fire, much to the chagrin of runners, equestrians, hikers and historians alike.

Recently, M. Sullivan, a Red Card-qualified fire fighter, was able to access a 4.5 mile segment the Western States Trail in the Last Chance area, specifically Pucker Point trail, to determine the extent of fire-related damage and restoration needs.

The Tahoe National Forest (TNF) made these pictures available and officials stated additional pictures will be released as firefighters can safely access other portions of the trail.

With respect to the two burned bridges between Last Chance and Devil’s Thumb, the fire’s Incident Commander has not yet authorized Red Card qualified personnel into the area due to safety concerns.

Image courtesy USFS photo by M.Sullivan
Image courtesy USFS photo by M.Sullivan

As previously stated by Forest Supervisor Tom Quinn during a public meeting about the American Fire, the forest recognizes that there is a lot of concern about this trail.

Both the incident management teams and the forest took special precautions whenever feasible to protect the historic and recreational value of the trail. During the fire, a resource advisor worked alongside dozer operators to minimize damage caused by suppression.

As evident from the images, there are still pockets of green, unburned vegetation in the immediate vicinity.

There are many hazard trees which are still falling down in the fire’s perimeter and will continue to fall throughout the coming months and even winter.

Image courtesy USFS photo by M.Sullivan

A Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team is expected to present their report next week which will identify areas within the fire to be repaired prior to winter rains. The ranger district is requesting burn area emergency response treatment funding and restoration funding.

On August 20th, the presidents of both the Western States Trail Foundation and the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run Foundation released an open letter to their members which reads, in part:

Many of you are very anxious to gear up and pitch in to help with recovery efforts for the trail. At this time, we ask that you please refrain from any activities associated with the burn area and the Western States Trail. Once the Tahoe National Forest has determined that the fire has been fully contained and it is safe to venture into the area, the WSJTT will work with the appropriate Tahoe National Forest staff on a plan to evaluate and access the condition of the trail within the burn area.

Thanks to all for your keen interest in supporting the preservation of the Western States Trail. Like all challenges in life, we will come together as a team and ensure that every effort possible is made to ensure recovery of this historic trail.

Image courtesy USFS photo by M.Sullivan

Lingering smoke, with the occasional plume developing and water drops by helicopters to cool down flareups are the most visible indicators the fire is only contained, not controlled and certainly not out. Approximately 125 firefighters remain on the incident, down from close to 2,000 personnel at the height of the fire.

In a previous safety update, the TNF gave plain-English definitions for the wildfire terms “contained,” “controlled” and “out.”

Contained means the forward spread of the fire has been stopped. The American Fire was contained on August 29 2013.

Controlled means the fire will not cross containment lines. Measures such as felling trees in the containment lines and eliminating hot spots adjacent to containment lines as well as patrolling for new smokes in or near the containment lines is referred to “mop up.” Mop up is occurring on the American Fire right now and is expected to continue for at least another week.

Out means the entire fire area is cold to the touch. Concerning the American Fire that means all 27,440 acres must be cold to the touch. With the heavy fuels and large stumps that hold heat “Out” is not expected until substantial rain and snow have blanketed the fire area. Even when the fire is declared “out” a recently burned area still contains hazards such as falling trees and limbs, hidden holes in the ash pits and rocks on roads and trails.


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