The week of August 15, California experienced a historic lightning siege with a reported 11,000 lightning strikes over 72-hours, igniting more than 650 wildfires. Two of the lightning-caused fires, the Castle and Shotgun fires (Sequoia (SQF) Complex), were reported by Bald Mountain Lookout Wednesday, August 19, at approximately 7 am. Six 20-person hand crews hiked into the Golden Trout Wilderness to attack the Castle Fire, struggling against extreme fire behavior and poor visibility due to smoke.
Fire crews and air attack reported erratic behavior with wind-driven fire runs burning past the Little Kern River. Although thousands of gallons of water and retardant were used to stop the fire’s progression, within a few days the fire spread to more than 3,000 acres within the Golden Trout Wilderness. Since day 1, the fire has been in full suppression mode, using all available resources.
As concerns mounted over the fire’s behavior, Forest officials began requesting voluntary evacuations for mountain communities. Forest personnel reached out to forty permit holders with backcountry trips planned into the fire area. They implemented search and rescue efforts for hikers reported within the vicinity of the Castle Fire. On August 22, helicopter-523, based at the Forest Service Helibase in Kernville, airlifted five hikers out of the wilderness to safety.
Due to the incident’s complexity, we have had several teams and firefighters from throughout the United States and Mexico fight the blaze in our forest and mountain communities.
- • August 23, only 4-days after the fire was discovered, California Interagency Incident Management Team 12, a Type 2 team, took command of the incident.
- • September 3, command of the incident was transferred to the Northern Rockies Incident Management Team 1, a Type 1 team.
- • September 16, the complex was divided into two zones; East and West. CAL FIRE Incident Management Team 6 assumed command of the West Zone, and the Northern Rockies IMT maintained command of the East zone.
- • September 23, California Interagency Incident Management Team 2 took command of the East zone.
- • October 6, California Incident Management Team 13 assumed command.
The Eastern Area Gold Incident Management Team assumed command of the SQF Complex on October 22.
Over the course of the fires, the United States Forest Service, National Park Service, CALFIRE, BLM, BIA and Tule River Reservation came together under unified command with the Incident Management Teams to fight the wildfire, the largest in Tulare County history.
Many cherished mountain communities and forest sites were within the fire’s path. Ponderosa, Pyles Boys Camp, Redwood Drive, Alpine Village, Sequoia Crest, and Doyle Springs all experienced varying amounts of damage and loss of homes. According to firefighters’ reports, winds blew the fire in a northwestern direction at an alarming rate that had not been seen in 10 years.
As you know, the fire went through a number of sequoia groves. Although the sequoias are fire-adapted, I developed a team of Forest Service personnel and key stakeholders to assess the impacts to the sequoia groves from the fire, compare the pre- and post-fire conditions, and develop short- and long-term restoration needs.
Although crews worked to stop the fire from spreading, secured perimeters, and wrapped historical structures, our losses were many. Among those are Jordan Peak Lookout and communications site, Grey Meadow Cabin, Mountain Home Guard Station, Clicks Creek Trailhead, at least one trail bridge on the Freeman Creek Trail, the Golden Trout Pack Station, and the CSET (Stars) Camp on the North road.
As fire suppression activities within the forest winddown, fire suppression repair activities are just beginning, and residents are returning. A Forest closure area was established due to multiple hazards and crews working in the area. Over the next several weeks, staff and contractors will be mitigating safety concerns to our communities.
We are permitting some individuals access to their private lands, cabins and permitted operations on National Forest System land. Requests are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. We have been granting access if there is no active fire in the area; accessing the area will not interfere with any fire operations, and the requested area is not located within a mandatory evacuation zone. District Rangers Eric LaPrice and Al Watson will continue to be the Points of Contact for approving additional names to the master list.
Please remain patient with the Forest closure as it continues to be important for both firefighter and public safety. While I do not have a projected date for modification of the closure area outside of the fire perimeter, it is being evaluated daily. However, the fire caused significant damage to our Forest infrastructure that will need to be addressed before reopening to the public. We request your patience as this may take a substantial amount of time. I appreciate your help in communicating with other community members about the residual fire hazards and the concern for firefighter and public safety.
What are the safety concerns? The fire burned extremely hot in many areas causing fallen or leaning trees and branches. There is potential for windy conditions, high temperatures, and low relative humidity in the coming days, resulting in fire flare-ups. We are dealing with other potential safety hazards, including heavy equipment traffic on narrow roads, hazard trees resulting from fire damage, chippers, and other heavy equipment sending debris onto roadways. In addition to these hazards, there are numerous areas where the fire is still smoldering, resulting in ash pits and stump holes that are likely to continue burning into the winter months. While there is little chance for rain in the near forecast, we monitor the potential for storm activity, increasing our chances of mudslides, flash floods, and additional hazards along the roadways.
A Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team arrived in October, consisting of various resource specialists from the local forest and other areas. The team evaluated the burned area to determine where there is a high risk of erosion or other damage to resources that may occur within the next few months and into the next year. They also began conducting emergency stabilization activities, where necessary, throughout the burned area. Some of the activities are stabilizing roads and trails; placing vegetation, seeds, or other material on the severely burned slopes to prevent erosion; and proposing treatments to prevent spread of known invasive species in the burned area. These activities can take days, weeks, or months to complete. Some areas may be monitored for up to three years, where there is a risk of fire-related damage.
It was inspiring to see local people and organizations working together to provide the infrastructure and support that allowed thousands of firefighters to suppress the largest wildfire in the history of the Sequoia National Forest and Tulare County.
The Forest Service is grateful for the consistent cooperation that occurred between the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office, Tulare County Fire Department, Tulare County, Tulare County Office of Emergency Services, Tulare County Roads, Tulare Country Health and Human Services Agency, Tulare County Health Departments, Tule River Reservation, Caltrans, Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, Red Cross, local emergency responders, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park employees, US Fish and Wildlife Service, CALFIRE, California Highway Patrol, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, California Conservation Corps, California Office of Emergency Services, AT&T, Verizon, California Department of Transportation, California Air National Guard, and California National Guard, CONAFOR crew, National Forestry Commission of Mexico, concessionaires, private landowners, and many others.
Working together allowed us to develop, coordinate, and execute successful plans. I look forward to our continued cooperation as we rehabilitate our mountain communities, roads, trails, and facilities so the Sequoia National Forest and Giant Sequoia National Monument can once again be the destination for thousands of Forest visitors.
To the Sequoia National Forest employees thank you for your dedication and self-sacrifice during this historic fire. I am grateful to all of you for your hard work, perseverance, great attitudes, and passion for protecting and managing our public lands.