The Mountain Fire is still burning and smoldering in places, said both Dan Felix, San Jacinto Ranger District fire chief, and Battalion Chief Chris Fogle, who assumed the role of incident commander following the departure last week of the Type 1 Incident Management Team.
“There is still a potential for the fire to spot,” Felix said. During the past week, Fogle has employed two wildland fire modules. These 10-person teams, who are still here and are more common in the Sierras, have technical and ecological-based expertise in the areas of ignitions, holding, suppression, hazard fuels reduction, and fire effects monitoring in timber lands or wilderness.
“They are our eyes and recording mechanism for where the fire is at and what it’s doing,” Fogle explained.
In addition, the district has been using Type 6 engines from Arizona to patrol the fire area. Also, the helicopter assigned to the Keenwild Helibase will fly the burned area regularly and various teams from the district, who will be assessing the resource damage and repairing damage, will monitor the area throughout the summer and fall.
Both fire managers confirmed IMT leader Jeanne Pincha-Tulley’s initial assessment that the areas within the fire may continue to burn into late fall. In the wilderness, there are many dead and fallen trees from the intense bark beetle infestation during the past decade, according to Fogle.
Furthering the fire’s life is the depth of the duff (dead leaves and needles) on the ground and residual heat on the forest’s floor. In the absence of periodic natural fires, the duff is much deeper at the top of the mountain than in normal timberlands, said Felix.
“It will take a long time to put out the fire,” he said. These islands of heat are well inside the fire boundary and present no current threat of spreading. But in Southern California, weather is always a dominant player in fire activities.
“I’m fairly confident the fire will not grow,” Fogle said. “But the primary threat will be the right wind, which could throw something outside the line.”
The fire and subsequent rains appear to have damaged several of the trails at various points, both men said. “Sections of the trail have been lost,” said Fogle sadly, who has hiked these trails since childhood, their loss felt personally.
The danger to hikers has not been fully assessed and until the Burned Area Emergency Response Team has finished its assessment and reported to District Ranger Arturo Delgado, the forest will not open the trails around Saddle Junction and those connecting with the Pacific Crest Trail south to Highway 74.
The fire has changed the natural resource at the top of the mountain. Trees, undergrowth and chaparral have burned. While this is good for the forest’s health, “our kids will never see what we were used to seeing there,” Fogle said.
Areas burned in past fires, such as the Apache and Tahquitz fires, suffered less damage from heat intensity and burning, both observed.
Within the next few weeks, the BAER team will issue a resource damage assessment to Delgado. This will be the basis of future repair decisions and eventual opening of all remaining trails.