Castle Fire on the move: A tale of two canyons

Castle Fire on the move
Smoke emanates from the Homers Nose ridgeline, as seen from the Mineral King Road on Tuesday, October 6.

 

Acreage (10/09): 164,993 (+2,041 since yesterday; +11,767 since 10/02); this growth is almost entirely on the north side of the Castle Fire. 

Containment (10/09): 65% (+4% since 10/02; +7% since 9/29); the 35% not contained is the north section, which is the portion causing Three Rivers and Mineral King residents to remain on alert and in varying states of evacuation. Castle Fire on the move

Personnel: 841 (-1,146 since 9/29)

Estimated Date of Containment: November 1 (revised upward from October 10).

 


Analysis and Observations Castle Fire on the move

Fire activity slowed once the Castle Fire crested Dennison Ridge in early September. For weeks now, Three Rivers residents have been watching the fire creep down the north slope of Dennison toward the South Fork river, wondering what the implications would be once it reached this important line in the sand. The fire had 2.5 miles to burn down the mountain, not the preferred direction of flames, and it stalled out for awhile consuming the dense fuels in the Garfield Grove of giant sequoias. Then, overnight this past week, the fire began threatening the East Fork canyon of the Kaweah River.

Fire on the Mountain— During the fire’s time on the north side of Dennison Ridge, evacuations of different levels were assigned to the town and hundreds had to pack up and leave their homes. Upper South Fork residents, including Cinnamon Creek Road and all the way to road’s end, were allowed to return home on September 29 after 15 days under mandatory evacuation. A week later, on Tuesday, October 6, the evacuation order was given to these residents once again: pack up and leave. These are some of the most rural properties in Three Rivers, meaning there are several ranches in the evacuation zone that have had to move large animals out of the area more than once.

Castle Fire on the move
The ladybugs of Ladybug Trail. Castle Fire on the move

River Crossing— Over the past weekend, after two weeks on the north side of Dennison, the Castle Fire reached the South Fork river and promptly jumped it. From there, it started burning on the Ladybug Trail side of the canyon. Then on Monday-Tuesday, October 5-6, the fire hit the dry, overgrown fuels on the canyon’s north slope and burned its way up to Homers Nose overnight. Also that same night, the fire joined with the smaller fire to the east that was burning at South Fork Crossing (see last report for the announcement of this new fire) and began working its way onto the Hockett Plateau. The Castle Fire has now reached over 9,000 feet elevation, its highest point in the more than seven weeks since being ignited by lightning on August 19.

Taking Precedence— Cal Fire crews are working along upper South Fork Drive outside of Sequoia National Park to provide structure protection and stop the fire from heading down the canyon. This is currently the highest priority region of the Castle Fire. On Wednesday, six Type 1 helicopters — the largest that are used for firefighting and can carry up to 2,500 gallons of water — were working the Castle Fire’s South Fork section. There are several structures, including homes, that are under immediate threat.

Update: Late on Thursday (October 8), the mobile retardant base returned to the Schrock Ranch just over the bridge on North Fork Drive. Thus the term “mobile,” because it previously set up in this location on September 27 and departed September 30.

CALFIRE opens mobile retardant base in Three Rivers

Working the Federally Managed Lands— Forest Service crews with interagency and international assistance are working the federal lands, currently Sequoia National Park, but the fire could also enter Bureau of Land Management boundaries on the Salt Creek Ridge. They are positioned at South Fork Campground and beyond to stop the fire’s spread across and down the South Fork. Crews are also on the Mineral King Road, utilizing the fire road that is accessed from Oak Grove (6.5 miles from Highway 198). Castle Fire on the move

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW↓

Castle Fire on the move
The men and women from Mexico’s CONAFOR arrive in the Central Valley on September 25 and deployed the next day to the SQF Complex fire. Some of the crew members worked the upper South Fork portion of the blaze this week. (Inciweb photo)

A part of the 100-member CONAFOR (Comision Nacional Forestal) team from Mexico, which were deployed onto the SQF Complex on September 26, is assisting in the protection of the South Fork region. The crews are part of an agency of the Mexico government tasked with developing, supporting, and promoting the conservation and restoration of the country’s forests, as well participating in the development of plans, programs, and policies for sustainable forestry development. These firefighters are here to assist as well as learn. Castle Fire on the move

Salt Creek Camp and some of its CCC members.

Fire Roads Courtesy of the Civilian Conservation Corps— The Salt Creek roads and trails, which in recent years have been a favorite source of outdoor recreation for Three Rivers folks, were originally built as a series of fire roads that traverse and encircle Three Rivers. In 1937-1938, beginning at Camp Salt Creek — which was located in the flat just beyond the gate at the end of Salt Creek Drive — Civilian Conservation Corps members built the fire control road to Cinnamon Gap (about 7 miles) and down to South Fork Drive (almost 7 more miles) as well as up to and around the Case Mountain summit.

Today that road is serving its original intended purpose. The Salt Creek Road entrance to its terminus at the nine-mile marker on South Fork Drive is currently considered completed contingency line, meaning the north-south road will be used to stop the Castle Fire from heading west into Three Rivers. There is also a completed east-west dozer line on Salt Creek Ridge to stop the fire if it makes a run toward Case Mountain, its complex of sequoia groves, and some communications and weather-monitoring equipment on the mountaintop. Crews are also making use of the CCC-era fire road from Oak Grove to Case Mountain, a distance of about 8 miles, to control the fire’s easterly spread toward Mineral King. Castle Fire on the move

Another east-west contingency line is being proposed utilizing old roads in the Milk Ranch Peak locale, extending west to protect Ash Mountain (Sequoia National Park headquarters) and east along Paradise Ridge. There is an abandoned fire lookout facility on Milk Ranch Peak.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW↓

The promontory known as Homers Brow as seen from the Ladybug Trail. The Homers Nose summit is to the left in this photo, which was taken in January 2019.

 

Homers Brow and the encroaching Castle Fire. (Inciweb photo)

Where There’s Smoke— From the Mineral King Road on Tuesday, October 6, two large plumes of smoke could be seen through the smoky, ash-filled air emanating from the Homers Nose area as the fire is now attempting to crest the ridge and enter yet another Kaweah canyon: the East Fork. A helicopter was making round trips to drop buckets of water on the ridgeline. But this helicopter, the largest used in firefighting, was minuscule and its 2,500 gallons of water looked like a trickle when compared to the smoke plume of the advancing fire.

The good news is that the fire could run right into the footprint of the 2018 Eden Fire, which was caused by lightning and discovered October 4, two years ago this week. It consumed 1,500 acres until it was extinguished by a storm system in late November. The Eden Fire, which caused some smoky days and nights in Three Rivers, could stop the forward progress of the Castle Fire as its moves south toward the East Fork canyon. 

Remote Yet Historic (and Prehistoric)— As the north portion of the Castle Fire grows to the east, it is threatening the Hockett Meadow Ranger Station (built by the CCCs) and the Quinn Patrol Cabin (constructed in 1906 by the U.S. Cavalry), two structures in the backcountry near the southern boundary of Sequoia National Park, both of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These structures, both of which are still used by the National Park Service, are in the process of being protected with a heat-resistant wrap.

Cahoon Rock Fire Lookout, 1974. (From CaliforniaLookouts.com)

The fire has also reached Cahoon Rock (elevation 9,278), ironically the site of a former fire lookout station, which was dismantled by the National Park Service and all trace removed many years ago. It is throwing sparks downslope to Evelyn Lake, the next landmark in the relentless march of flame.

When the Castle Fire breathes its last spark of life, it is entirely feasible that it will have burned through 20 giant sequoia groves from south to north, located on National Forest, National Park, State of California, and Bureau of Land Management lands.

Place Names— The name Homers Nose came to be in 1872 when a surveyor from the General Land Office and his guide, John Homer, from the pioneer Homer family of Three Rivers, approached the rock. The surveyor, John Orth, looked at the rock, then looked at his guide and said, “Homer, that looks just like your nose!” 

Cahoon Rock, Cahoon Meadow, and Cahoon Mountain were named for an early South Fork settler, George W. Cahoon. In 1885, he homesteaded 160 acres along the South Fork of the Kaweah River in the shadow of “Cahoon Mountain” and had a summer cabin at the meadow that now bears his name (in the canyon between Homers Nose and Cahoon Rock). There are several Cahoon descendants still residing in Three Rivers.

Weather Outlook / Air Quality

The past week has consisted of days where it was snowing ash once again in Three Rivers due to the Castle Fire’s rapid growth. Smoke is funneling into the Kaweah canyons via the South Fork and the East Fork drainages. Due to no wind, the smoke has blanketed Three Rivers for more than a month with little reprieve.

A cooling trend this weekend should offer some air movement and, perhaps, relief from the smoke as the high-pressure lid is lifted for a few days. But with the cooler temperatures, there will be windy conditions and increased fire activity. This fire’s only kryptonite is precipitation in the form of rain and/or snow. The extended forecast isn’t showing any of that in the necessary amounts for the entirety of October.

Vegetation and Terrain

The Castle Fire is burning through some godawful understory of chamise and poison oak. Fire crews on the ground in the steepest, most remote sections have the challenge of this overgrown vegetation to contend with as well as the fire. The river canyons are narrow with steep ascents on either side. Inserting crews into these areas cannot be done without an escape route if the fire closes in. 

Closures

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW↓

—The Mineral King Road (above) is closed for the season at the gate located 10 miles from Highway 198. 

In addition to the mandatory evacuation in place beginning at 5.5 miles up South Fork Drive, traffic is being requested to stay off the entirety of the narrow roadway in order to provide right-of-way to fire crews and equipment.

—Sequoia National Park backcountry. Check with Park Service and maps before trip-planning.

—Salt Creek trails system in Three Rivers.

—Mount Whitney access trails to the summit, from both the Sequoia National Park side and the Whitney Portal (Inyo National Forest) side.

—Sequoia National Forest north of Kern County in the SQF Complex zone.

Wishful thinking at the closed-up Mineral King Ranger Station. The ranger station never opened during the 2020 summer season due to COVID-19 precautions.

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23 thoughts on “Castle Fire on the move: A tale of two canyons

  • October 9, 2020 at 6:14 am
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    Great article. Best yet on the fire.
    Thank you for posting all the fire information.

    Reply
  • October 9, 2020 at 7:17 am
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    Thank you for giving us great details on the fire along with history of the area. Your articles are very much appreciated.

    Reply
  • October 9, 2020 at 7:35 am
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    Excellent article, lots of great local information, well written. Thank you.

    Reply
  • October 9, 2020 at 8:19 am
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    Thank you for the information about the fire. We appreciate the work of the fire crews and the daunting challenge ahead.

    Reply
  • October 9, 2020 at 8:38 am
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    Great, easy to understand info sarah! Thank you!

    Reply
  • October 9, 2020 at 8:42 am
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    Sarah – You deserve a Nobel Prize for Non-Fiction. I applaud your concise, clear, and complete summary for we who don’t know the CalFire jargon. Having had the pleasure of riding horse-back through most of this country in the past 40 years, and hearing stories from cattlemen, I can totally form a picture of the area of this tragedy through your report. Thanks so much for your efforts to keep our community informed.

    Reply
  • October 9, 2020 at 8:45 am
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    Sarah and John: we can’t thank you enough for your thorough updates. As transplanted Three Riverites, our hearts are still very much with you and all of our wonderful friends there. We’ve tried to follow the progress of the fire on inciweb and other sources, but, your updates have been the best. Thanks again….. Dave Parsons and Suzi Kimzey

    Reply
  • October 9, 2020 at 8:46 am
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    Very informative! I love the detailed history you provided. Keep up the great work! 😀

    Reply
  • October 9, 2020 at 9:07 am
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    Three cheers for our talented local news! Support 3rnews!

    Reply
  • October 9, 2020 at 9:12 am
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    I’m heading up the mountain with my shovel & couple of water bottles to pit an end to this fire … I’m sure the fire fighters will welcome my efforts. 🤣🤣🤣 ok, so maybe not a good idea, ill be on standby 🤣
    Good article Sarah

    Reply
  • October 9, 2020 at 9:25 am
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    This is definitely the best of local newspaper reporting. We in Three Rivers are so thankful the Elliotts did not sell the Kaweah Commonwealth. Thank you for all you are giving us in the way of information, education, understanding and community cohesion in this troubled time.

    Reply
    • October 9, 2020 at 9:48 am
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      Wonderful article thanks so much for being so specific about areas etc.

      Reply
  • October 9, 2020 at 9:42 am
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    Thank you for excellent coverage and explaining everything. The multicolored maps on the internet just alarm me.
    I wondered why there were chainsaw crews working under Eagle’s Roost yesterday!

    Reply
  • October 9, 2020 at 10:20 am
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    Really appreciated this article. Thank you, Sarah! Leah Launey

    Reply
  • October 9, 2020 at 10:33 am
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    Dear Sarah and John,

    Adding my appreciation to all of the above, thank you SO MUCH for all you are doing to help keep the Three Rivers community safe and well-informed~!

    Carole Combs
    North Fork Drive
    Three Rivers Fire Safe Council Board Member

    Reply
  • October 9, 2020 at 12:26 pm
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    We will add our thanks to those above in appreciation for your excellent job of coverage…

    Reply
  • October 9, 2020 at 6:30 pm
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    Well done! Thank you for the concise description of where this fire is headed and what is being done to contain it.

    Reply
  • October 9, 2020 at 7:50 pm
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    My dear Sarah…You have made a movie in our minds not only of the the current situation which has us all on the edge of our chairs, but the added history is the icing on the cake…Thank you so much,

    Reply
  • October 10, 2020 at 9:52 am
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    Thanks Sarah.. Great article and history.

    Reply
  • October 10, 2020 at 12:04 pm
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    Sarah,

    Thanks for the update about the Castle Fire. I was the Chief of Resources Management in SEKI from 1977 to 2000. I retired in 2000 and we are now living in Grass Valley, California, having moved from Bend, Oregon, last October.

    Keep up the great work about the Castle Fire.

    Thank you.

    Larry and Kay Bancroft

    Reply
  • October 10, 2020 at 3:27 pm
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    Great synopsis of our ongoing saga. Kudos to Sarah & John for keeping us informed.

    The Chinooks have been flying fast and furious up and down the South Fork this afternoon, and soon we’ll get a handle on things, and how exciting to be able to go to places which were hidden from view on the Ladybug & Garfield trails.

    We’re so indebted to our army of firefighters in all aspects, for keeping a lid on this, and limiting it to a couple of areas in Sequoia NP rich with Sequoias, the Garfield a much more mature grove-some might say a nursing home, while there are Brobdingnagians of every age on the Ladybug trail, including ones from the 1867 Snowslide Canyon avalanche aftermath. They need fire, the big fellas.

    The Homers Nose grove was forbidden fruit heretofore, but not no more.

    Reply

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