Started by lightning on August 19, 2020, in the last 10 weeks, the Castle Fire has disrupted lives, destroyed cabins and homes and historical resources, burned through ancient giant sequoia groves, caused weeks of smokeouts and dangerous air quality, and forced evacuations of varying levels for many in the Tulare County foothills, including the entire town of Three Rivers. Because a pandemic wasn’t enough of a challenge.
No homes or other structures were destroyed by the fire in Three Rivers. It was the southernmost foothills and mountain areas of the county that took the biggest hit from this fire. No lives were lost, thankfully, but nearly 300 structures were destroyed. There are many heartbreaking stories of loss, including that of Woody Smeck, Sequoia and Kings Canyon’s former superintendent, whose multigenerational forest home near Camp Nelson fell victim to the fire.
Evacuation and Containment— As of Wednesday, October 28, all evacuation orders, which by now consisted only of voluntary evacuation, were lifted from South Fork Drive and the Mineral King cabin communities. The Castle Fire is 75 percent contained. The final one-quarter of uncontained perimeter consists of an area near Homers Nose that is to steep-brushy-remote to be worked by ground crews. The helicopters worked the area relentlessly.
A containment line is in that will stop the fire from reaching Hockett Meadow and its ranger station. The fire is being diverted east here and allowed to burn in this high-country wilderness until stopped by the season’s first snow. The northeasternmost section of the Castle Fire that has been threatening the Kern Canyon Ranger Station for more than a month is also being diverted out of the Kern Canyon and west up and into the Coyote Creek drainage. It, too, will be monitored yet allowed to burn until it meets its match with precipitation.
Weather and Air Quality— The cooler weather has moderated fire activity but humidity levels remain in the 20s, which means dry vegetation. High pressure remains in place and will bring above-normal temperatures and dry humidity at least through Monday, November 2. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is keeping its Air Quality Alert in effect until the fires are extinguished. For the coming week, mostly clear skies will prevail with highs in the mid to low 80s; nighttime lows in the 50s.
The last significant rainfall in Three Rivers was May 19, 2020, more than five months ago. It rained one-quarter of an inch; the season total (at the 1,000-foot elevation level) was 13.80 inches.
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A Mosaic of Public Lands— The Castle Fire has burned 170,032 acres (as of Thursday, Oct. 29). It has grown 2,407 acres in the past 15 days. For comparison, in the five-day period from September 25 to 29, the fire grew 6,023 acres, and in the five-day period from October 10 to 14, the fire grew 1,307 acres.
The fire has burned on portions of Sequoia National Forest and Giant Sequoia National Monument (129,947 acres); Inyo National Forest (12,283 acres; Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (18,242 acres); Bureau of Land Management (728 acres); State of California (4,036 acres); County of Tulare and private lands (4,726 acres); and threatened the Tule River Indian Reservation.
Crews Depart— Currently, personnel numbers just over 400. The CONAFOR crews have returned home to Mexico as of this week after assisting on the Castle Fire for a month. A local news report stated that two of the Mexico firefighters tested positive for COVID-19 as did an Arizona firefighter also working the Castle Fire. They are reportedly under quarantine, and it is unknown how they contracted the virus.
Cleanup Process— The Department of Toxic Substances Control is working with the County Resource Management Agency, the Environmental Health Division, and other County officials to begin phase one of the cleanup process for residences damaged or destroyed by the SQF Complex. Cleanup will begin Tuesday, Nov. 3, and will be conducted at no cost to property owners.
The effort is expected to last three to four weeks. Disposal of hazardous waste ensures the public health of those returning to the area and prepares affected properties for phase two, which involves the more comprehensive removal of debris. Property owners who choose to begin property cleanup themselves outside of the federal process may lose out on federal funding but will still be subject to proper cleanup standards.
Crews will remove electronic waste such as: microwave ovens; LCD, plasma, and CRT displays; stereo components; copiers; phones and answering machines; VCRs, DVD/Blu-Ray players, computers, laptops, and routers (home network equipment); and calculators. Crews will also remove household hazardous waste, including paint; pesticides; aerosol cans; fire extinguishers; pool chemicals; propane cylinders; intact compressed gas cylinders; ammunition smaller than .50 caliber; batteries; suspected asbestos-containing materials; and fluorescent light ballasts.
Individuals with damaged or destroyed properties who have not yet contacted the County via the Local Assistance Center or SQF Complex Hotline are encouraged to do so. Affected individuals are also encouraged to register with FEMA by November 23 for potential federal assistance.
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