Sunday, December 9, 2007
by Guy McCarthy
RIVERSIDE, Dec. 7 -- A task force of scientists, builders and elected leaders from across Southern California met Friday in a government building situated on a low spot next to the Santa Ana River.
Their goal -- to begin crafting a law that will help guide safer development on alluvial fans, the slopes of mountain sediment that comprise so much of the remaining lucrative land in 10 California counties.
Erosion experts and historians took turns evoking the Christmas 2003 post-fire debris flow deaths of 16 people north of San Bernardino, as well as other deadly and destructive flood events that have periodically plagued the region over the past 150 years.
"Post-fire flooding conditions remain elevated for up to five years after a wildfire and the cycle repeats with the next wildfire," the charter of the Alluvial Fan Task Force states. "Alluvial fans are part of a larger system with flood risks that extend beyond the boundaries of the fans."
The timeliness of the meeting was underscored by reports that rain and flood watch warnings Friday kept a number of the most qualified experts away.
Not for fear of rising waters in the dam-controlled Santa Ana, but out of concern for thousands of residents who live in and below more than 750 square miles of watersheds that burned in October and November.
Officials from Orange and San Bernardino counties were notably absent. Though the storm systems crossing Southern California had not lived up to dire forecasts, mandatory evacuations had been ordered in at least one canyon community in the Cleveland National Forest. Road crews and public safety agencies were also on alert in densely-populated communities of the San Bernardino National Forest.
Task force members know they face a formidable challenge -- convincing local land use agencies and the residents they represent that yet another layer of regulation may be necessary to prevent foreseeable catastrophe.
The record-setting rain season of 2004-05 illustrated the costs of ignoring Southern California's flood history.
More than 1,800 homes in six counties were damaged or destroyed in storms that came more than a year after the devastating fires of October 2003, according to estimates compiled by the state Office of Emergency Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Even if it does not rain again in Southern California for the next five years, land use here will remain a topic of debate from Sacramento to the nation's capital. The firestorms of two recent Octobers, 2003 and 2007, killed more than 30 and destroyed more than 5,000 homes -- not counting related post-fire flood deaths and destruction.
VOICES OF THE PAST
Combined fire-flood costs in Southern California since October 2003 total more than 50 dead -- including six firefighter deaths -- and yet-to-be determined billions in emergency response, watershed damage, property losses, clean-up and rebuilding costs.
In San Bernardino County alone, the 2003 Old and Grand Prix fires and subsequent floods resulted in 22 deaths and cost an estimated $1.3 billion.
Dr. Kent Schofield, professor emeritus of history at Cal State San Bernardino and a founding member of the Water Resources Institute at CSUSB, compared photos from 1904 and 2007 to close his presentation to the Alluvial Fan Task Force on Friday.
Schofield presented two different views of north San Bernardino and the notch of Waterman Canyon, marked by the iconic hillside arrowhead that still serves as a symbol for San Bernardino County.
"Fortunately, there's not a great deal left to burn," Schofield said of the 2007 photo.
The same is true across great swathes of Southern California today. Like so many truisms in this disaster-prone region, each bit of good news comes with an equal dose of bad.
'THERE'S A PUBLIC INTEREST HERE'
More than 25 years ago a young firefighter named Jim Wilkins completed a 60-minute documentary titled "San Bernardino Under Siege." Filmed during and after the Panorama Fire of 1980, the documentary includes a frank summary of what fire-flood costs mean to society at large.
The words of CDF Chief Don Banghart ring as true today across Southern California as they did a quarter-century ago.
"So you hate to control people's very lives and tell them how to build their house and what to build it out of," Banghart said. "Or how long the cul-de-sac needs to be or how much water they have to have in their development.
"But I think we can see and everybody who does see much more clearly after the disaster -- one of this magnitude," Banghart said. "It's one of the few positive things that come out of it.
"I think people can clearly see there's a public interest here, and that government suffers," Banghart said. "You know there's a lot of money spent putting out a fire like this, or these fires. And we are affecting a whole bunch of people in ways that you know a lot of them can never really recover from that.
"And I think there's more than 'Just let people do what they like to do,' " Banghart said. "There's much more of a concern for 'Let's take a hand in this and do a little better job of comprehensive planning.' "
The next Alluvial Fan Task Force meeting is scheduled for Jan. 4. The location has yet to be determined.
Video at http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=45IRISH
by Guy McCarthy
SAN BERNARDINO, Dec. 6 -- Whatever the weather brings in the next few days, there will be plenty of people here afterward to clean up the mess.
No matter how much toxic burned material drains into Grass Valley and Green Valley lakes, the leaders of San Bernardino County and their network of experts will figure it out.
No matter how many rocks tumble onto mountain highways, how many wrecks tie up the freeways, or how much mud ends up on the streets, workers are ready.
In the meantime, the trials of the past seven weeks have again exposed the soft underbelly of laissez-faire land use planning across Southern California. The costs are being shared by taxpayers and some insurance policy holders nationwide. They deserve explanations.
Local, state and federal hearings have been conducted to try to find out what happened and when. Another list of recommendations will surely be trotted out, and many of them will be ignored -- again.
Nevertheless, quests for accountability may produce solutions to reduce impacts of the next disasters, whatever forms they take.
With that in mind, perhaps there are a few lessons leaders across Southern California can learn from people here in San Bernardino County.
More than 25 years ago, a young firefighter named Jim Wilkins made a 60-minute documentary about the 1980 Panorama Fire and its aftermath, "San Bernardino Under Siege." The program aired several times on public television and has been used extensively as a training film. Hundreds of firefighters across Southern California have had their first view of urban firestorm conditions thanks to Wilkins' documentary.
This important historic record should now be required viewing for all decision-makers at the federal, state and local level -- anyone who has a vote in disaster-related matters in California -- because it shows that firefighters more than a quarter-century ago already knew about the factors that elected leaders and land use agencies are now forced to grapple with yet again. If leaders in Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento and the Nation's Capital choose to ignore this piece of history, they are missing a significant part of the picture.
Wilkins lives in Wrightwood. The fire chief who cleared Wilkins to complete the documentary, Duane Mellinger, lives in north San Bernardino.
The chart pictured at the top of this post is from NOAA Technical Memorandum NWS WR-261, "Climate of Southern California," published in January 2000. It's a simple diagram based on at least a century of observation, showing where predictably strong winds blow through Southern California. Click on it to see detail.
Titled "Three main Santa Ana wind corridors into the Los Angeles basin," the image tells us what we already know. So what are we going to do about it?
It's not a stretch to suggest that known Santa Ana wind corridors should at the very least be included in local land use policy. The winds are so foreseeable they hardly qualify as a disaster.
In the San Gorgonio Pass, which NOAA refers to as Banning Pass, the winds are so strong and so consistent that scientists and investors figure it's lucrative to literally harvest the winds. The forest of spinning fans in one of the largest wind farms in the world is a landmark millions of motorists drive through every year.
How does it make sense to build homes in the same wind corridor? This is the same region where five Forest Service firefighters died trying to protect a vacant home above Cabazon in October 2006.
A suspected arsonist has been charged with five counts of murder in the firefighter deaths. Even if we could somehow kill all arsonists overnight, fires are still going to ignite in known Santa Ana wind corridors. Keep on building there if you want to. Expect insurance companies to take a dim view on claims in the future.
More detailed wind maps and studies are available. The author of several studies, Ivory Small, still works for NOAA in San Diego.
Testimony by Calfire Director Ruben Grijalva last week to a Department of Interior appropriations subcommittee uses the word "watershed" at least 17 times. Since the state is finally getting around to pounding the message home, here's a little perspective.
In April 129 years ago, a one-armed explorer named John Wesley Powell submitted to Congress a "Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States."
Wallace Stegner, one of the West's leading literary voices, wrote that Powell "proposed surveys and political divisions not by arbitrary boundaries but by drainage divides" -- "so that watershed and timber lands, foothill grazing lands, and valley irrigated lands could be managed intelligently without conflict."
There was too much common sense in a notion like that. In 1889 and 1890 the constitutional conventions of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming would not listen to Powell's pleas for rational thinking, Stegner wrote. That's one reason we have so many square edges in our Western state maps.
Watersheds are not shaped like geometric squares. They are the shape of the land we live in.
Watersheds form natural funnels for all the elements that make this fire-erosion country -- water, rocks, winds and flames. A watershed is a rockshed. A watershed is a windshed. A watershed is a fireshed.
Forest managers in the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit get it. They are already titling documents "Stewardship Fireshed Assessment."
It's not too late to learn a few tricks from Powell, Stegner and Tahoe foresters. That is why a regional board like the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority has more credibility on certain issues than any number of city and county government agencies.
Individual counties, especially San Bernardino where we are so familiar with the notion of watersheds, have already mapped these individual features. It is time to look harder at recognizing these basic geographic features for what they are -- natural political boundaries, the foundation and framework for whatever humans attempt to do within them.
MOUNTAINS NEED A HAIRCUT
The mountains also need somebody like the Rev. Al Sharpton to pound another simple message into the public consciousness.
"If a tree is brown, cut it down. If a tree is brown, cut it down."
That means cutting down up to 10 million sick, dead and dying trees in the San Bernardino National Forest alone. At roughly $100 a tree, no government agency is going to pay that bill. So what do we do? Sit on our hands and wait for the next big fire?
It's time to get creative. There are standing armies of restless teenagers in valley neighborhoods, yearning for action. Make one year of forestry service compulsory for all teens in Southern California. Under scientifically-trained forest crew bosses, this vast labor pool can chew through all the vulnerable standing fuel from Mount Baldy to Idyllwild, and beyond.
Prefer inmate crews? Go for it. Mobile wood-cutter camps are an affordable alternative to expensive prison buildings, and would help relieve inmate overcrowding so often cited by county officials. And don't forget to harness the recovering methamphetamine addict population. Former tweakers like the outdoors, too.
The only practical alternative to hand-cutting each and every dead tree is to light the forest on fire and let flames do the work. Pick your poison. We've already tried doing nothing for decades, and we can see the results.
If a tree is brown, cut it down.
NO MORE SUBSIDIES
If local voters, like so many residents of San Diego, don't want to pay for their own fire protection, that's fine. But they should not expect the state or federal government to step in to fill the void.
Pay your own way, or move out of fire country.
Taking the point further, if people want to live at elevations where they are within a mile of chaparral species, they should provide their own fire protection. Period. Nobody else should pay. Brush clearance in chaparral hills and vulnerable forests should be spelled out plain and simple -- anything less than 100 yards doesn't cut it. You want to live in it? Start cutting it. And pave that 100 yards with rock or asphalt.
That's a phrase from memorial leaflets and websites about the crew of Forest Service Engine 57, who died Oct. 26, 2006 in the Esperanza Fire in Riverside County. One way to make sure people never forget is to put their photos on the cover of every land use and real estate handbook in Southern California.
That is what is really at stake here. Homeowners, investors, builders, and government officials who take fire protection for granted, placing the burden of protection on under-funded public safety agencies. Arsonists can light fires. But it takes nature to make a firestorm, and it takes property owners and land use agencies to build homes in wind corridors with known fire histories.
RESPECT YOUR ELDERS
The recorded history of San Bernardino County is relatively brief, but it rests on a foundation of people whose ancestors are still here -- Serrano, Cahuilla and particularly Yuhaviatam, the People of the Pines. If stewardship of mountain forests continues to prove too much for local, state and federal governments, the people who these lands belonged to in the first place may be willing to step up to the challenge.
Regardless of politics, the ancestors of Yuhaviatam and other tribes should be included in discussions of forest management in Southern California. Some of them can be found among the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in north San Bernardino.
Video at http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=45IRISH
That's what a South Ops aviation dispatcher in Riverside calmly told tanker pilots working small fires in the San Bernardino National Forest six days ago. She used the phrase to indicate they should reload retardant at Norton Field in the city of San Bernardino.
On Friday, nature sent a similar message - reload sandbags and k-rail.
by Guy McCarthy
GREEN VALLEY LAKE, Nov. 30 -- Terry Droll reflected on the wind-driven Slide Fire that roared through town in late October, and
considered the steady rains pattering on the roof of his general store Friday morning.
Summing up the past six weeks or so, he stuck to the basics.
"We left about 45 minutes before the firefighters pulled out," Droll said, referring to the night of Oct. 22.
"Some of the firefighters up here are my friends and they knocked on my door about 9:15," Droll said. "I went outside and the winds were blowing 60 miles per hour. We were getting fireballs in the backyard."
The store and his home survived the flames. Droll said he evacuated for 12 days. Now he's preparing for the next potential problem, like so many other Southern Californians.
"The rain is a big concern, because of mudslides and debris flows," Droll said. "That's the next threat."
'THIS RAIN CAUGHT'EM'
Droll, 55, said he's been in Green Valley Lake seven years, long enough to learn some local history.
"This store was built in the '20s, the first commercial structure," Droll said, standing behind a counter where fliers for mountain community meetings were available. "This is the first time fire's come through town, ever."
Many of his neighbors have changed their flood insurance since the October fires, Droll said, gesturing uphill towards a slope behind his store. He brought out fire progression maps, trying to show where post-fire erosion might be a problem.
"This rain here, I think it caught'em a little bit," Droll said. "They weren't expecting this much so soon. They do have plans to bring up k-rail and thousands of sandbags."
Residents of Green Valley Lake know that Burned Area Emergency Response teams have made their town a priority. Workers with heavy machinery had already built up a series of berms to control run-off at one end of the lake. But Droll said he and his neighbors still feel fairly self-reliant.
"We're in tune with nature up here," Droll said. "We call each other in the middle of the night. We know we're the red-headed stepchild on the mountain. Our tax base isn't big enough to compete with Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead."
VULNERABLE HOMES, WATER
In the east end of Green Valley Lake, some homes sat mid-hillside or at the bottom of slopes that were black and greasy in the rain Friday morning.
A few hardy residents worked in the rain with shovels, clearing drainage channels, but most of the town's roads and yards were empty.
Some people had set up low rows of sandbags above their homes. About 10 miles west, more erosion prevention measures were already in place near a Lake Arrowhead country club. Sections of concrete barriers known as k-rail lined vulnerable sections of several roads in and below neighborhoods that burned in the Grass Valley Fire.
The mountain scene close to lakeside burned areas seemed on the surface ideal for ducks. They paddled in the rain Friday morning on at least one of the man-made reservoirs that serve as centerpiece attractions in Green Valley Lake and Grass Valley. From a human perspective, the fog, cold and damp compounded the effect of so many blackened, hillside ruins.
Rivulets of rain water ran through ash, melted synthetic material, and black soil, forming foamy streams and small waterfalls as they descended, carrying sediment and particles of burned homes into the bodies of water. Authorities said more than 400 homes burned in the Slide and Grass Valley fires.
'PUBLIC SAFETY FIRST'
Firefighters, flood control staff and road workers were out in force Friday, said county fire Division Chief Tim Wessel, who was stationed in the city of San Bernardino.
"The number one priority is protecting lives, and so far we're fine," Wessel said about 3:30 p.m. "County flood and county road have extra people out helping Caltrans with rock and mudslides in the mountains -- on the 18 in the Arctic Circle and on Highway 38 above Angelus Oaks.
"We are having a little flooding in the High Desert area, where some newer construction sites are getting their first real test," Wessel said. "We are having some erosion, but no serious property damage."
Wessel expressed empathy for regional neighbors in Orange County, where mandatory evacuations were ordered earlier Friday in Modjeska Canyon and other vulnerable canyon areas that burned in the Santiago Fire. Wessel said that problems were not as severe here in San Bernardino County.
"At this time we are not having any major problems in the burned areas," Wessel said. "We do have rescue units available with swift-water rescue training, if necessary. So far, we're okay."
U.S. Geological Survey study released Tuesday Dec. 4 warns that ash and soils from burned areas across Southern California may adversely affect water quality, human health and endangered species, in addition to posing debris-flow and flooding hazards. Scientists focused initial soil tests on burned home sites in the Grass Valley area near Lake Arrowhead.
Forecasters say rain or snow is possible later this week in the mountain burned areas.
by Guy McCarthy
SAN BERNARDINO, Nov. 21 -- Winds gusting Wednesday in and below the Cajon Pass indicated why helicopter and tanker plane crews sit ready at airfields across Southern California.
Support staff included mechanics, fuel truck operators and retardant technicians. Their collective goal -- prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.
Meanwhile, federal aviation managers for the San Bernardino National Forest expressed confidence Wednesday in the county sheriff's aviation unit based at Rialto Municipal Airport.
"We have them on our call list," said Mike Dietrich, chief of fire and aviation management for the forest, which includes mountain communities in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. "If we can fly them, we will. They're on our list and they're a valuable asset. We recognize them."
Tom Inocencio, a forest aviation officer based at the federal tanker base at Norton Field, also made assurances that San Bernardino County sheriff's pilots are a valued resource.
"We work on a policy of the closest aircraft available will be called on," Inocencio said Wednesday morning in an interview at Norton Field. "It doesn't matter which agency is calling, or which agency has the aircraft. The closest available resources respond."
Dietrich and Inocencio made their comments in part as response to concerns veteran sheriff's pilots raised earlier this week in Rialto.
At their hangar base near the foot of Cajon Pass on Monday, sheriff's Sgt. Paul Howe and Deputy Craig McConnell indicated that although their personnel and aircraft are federally certified to help fight fires, they often do not get the call -- even as fires burn close by and other aircraft are flying in from elsewhere.
Howe and McConnell frankly addressed a point of public safety that sometimes gets blurred when people discuss wind-driven fires in Southern California -- if the winds are blowing hard, there is a narrow window of opportunity to knock a fire down before it turns into a beast no amount of aircraft can control.
Inocencio praised sheriff's pilots for their contributions on previous fires.
"We're aware of their aircraft, and they have been instrumental on initial attack several times," Inocencio said. "They've done it. But their primary mission is law enforcement, and we try to respect that."
Dietrich said he is sensitive to all pilots' concerns when it comes to timely initial attack. But winds gusting higher than 60 mph grounded all aircraft at times during the Slide and Grass Valley fires last month, Dietrich said.
Authorities estimated those fires destroyed 450 homes in the San Bernardino mountains.
"When we have 70 mph winds like we did on the Slide and Grass Valley fires, there were many aircraft we had to set down," Dietrich said. "Bottom line is we use all our aircraft when we can safely. And I think in San Bernardino and Riverside counties we're pretty darn well-coordinated."
Experience is a teacher. Local firefighters, pilots, law enforcement officers and volunteers have been tested several times in recent years when raging fires approached vulnerable communities on fire-prone edges of the foothills and forests.
Since October 2003, evacuation plans for thousands of imperiled residents have worked, thanks in part to multi-agency coordination of Mountain Area Safety Taskforce officials in both counties.
Getting people safely out of the way when fires get big is one thing. Fighting infernos of firestorm proportions is another.
SOMETIMES YOU CAN'T FLY
Inocencio, responding to some media reports that initial response to the wildfires last month was lacking, spoke from personal experience.
"The start of the fires on Oct. 21, I'd defy anybody to say we didn't have aircraft up," Inocencio said. "I was up there six and a half hours in an air attack on the Ranch Fire in L.A. county. We left here about 6:30 in the morning.
"We were unable to use any retardant planes that day at all because the winds were too erratic," Inocencio said. "Gusting 50 to 70 mph and sustained at least 40 mph."
Lt. Tom Hornsby, commander for the sheriff's aviation unit in Rialto, said his primary goal in all public safety situations is coordinating and maintaining positive relations with the agencies involved.
"We all have a depth and breadth of experience, but there are some problems that take years to understand," Hornsby said. "There are decisions that get made to this day that I do not understand. But the fire agencies are the experts when it comes to fighting fires, and I don't question them."
Federal and state fire officials are rightly cautious when it comes to firefighters' and pilots' safety because of the Esperanza Fire in October 2006, Hornsby said. Five Forest Service firefighters died trying to protect a home below Twin Pines in Riverside County. Authorities have charged a suspected arsonist with five counts of murder.
"They're working under the shadow of what happened a year ago," Hornsby said. "They don't want to get anybody hurt."
SOME DAYS EASIER THAN OTHERS
On July 21, 2006, law enforcement, firefighters and pilots jumped on a fast-burning grass fire in Crafton Hills. Photos show how quickly deputies determined arson as the cause, while aircraft coordinated with ground crews to shut the fire down before it did any significant damage to property. Helicopter pilots in particular, including at least one sheriff's pilot, made the most of available water resources close at hand.
Three months later, on Oct. 26, 2006, the elements and ignition conspired to create the deadly Esperanza Fire. Blasting winds out of San Gorgonio Pass subsided slightly after the initial firestorm that killed the crew of Forest Service Engine 57 early that day. Video shows that helicopter pilots and tanker crews had stiff winds to deal with in a firefight that lasted overnight and dragged on for several days.
LAND USE ACCOUNTABILITY
Richard Minnich, a fire ecologist at UC-Riverside's department of earth sciences, said firefighters and pilots in Southern California are sometimes tasked with the impossible.
"We have the resources, but the firefighters should not be accountable for the land use that takes place at the interface, where the homes meet the forests and the brush," Minnich said. "Maybe the people who live at the edges of these areas need to pay for their own firefighting."
Pilots and firefighters may be viewed as heroes by a vast number of homeowners, Minnich said. But the sobering fact is that homeowners' choices and local governments' land use decisions are the catalysts that increasingly and unfairly place the burden of protection on over-taxed public safety agencies.
"Yes, it's heroic what they may be doing," Minnich said. "But I'd rather see them using these resources in slower-moving fires at the interface, rather than fighting these wildfire blitzkriegs launched on us by fire suppression.
"If it's in open country, let it burn."
San Bernardino County sheriff's aviation at
Photos of Crafton Hills fire July 21, 2006
Video of Esperanza fire on Oct. 26, 2006
Red flag warning updated Friday morning 11/23/07 at
by Guy McCarthy
CAJON PASS, Nov. 19 -- "I heard we're supposed to have Santa Ana winds this week," sheriff's Sgt. Harry Stewart said into his helmet mike. "They're supposed to be mild. But who are you gonna believe?"
Deputy Bob Stine, seated next to Stewart in a helicopter they call "40 King 3," surveyed sparsely populated desert hills and draws sprawled about a thousand feet below, just north of Cajon Pass.
"Yeah, the other day it was bad," Stine said into his mike. "You couldn't see 20 feet in front of you. We were grounded half the day."
It was about 8 a.m. Monday. Stewart banked the airship southeast, the engine roared as he added throttle, and 40 King 3 headed over the San Bernardino mountains.
Past Silverwood Lake and over a high ridge, Stine pointed out some of the blackened mountain watershed recently burned in the Grass Valley Fire, near Lake Arrowhead. A hillside pocked with gray squares of ash indicated where scores of homes had burned near a country club.
Further southeast, bigger, blacker scars on the mountains showed the path the Slide Fire had burned downslope below Running Springs and Green Valley Lake, where hundreds of homes burned last month.
READY AND WILLING
Stewart and Stine work for the San Bernardino County sheriff's aviation unit, a close-knit group of pilots, law enforcement officers, mechanics and support staff.
They're based at a hangar in Rialto, near the foot of the Cajon Pass, where possible winds later this week were noted Monday in region-wide National Weather Service forecasts.
Stewart's and Stine's duties Monday included assisting officers on the ground, responding to auto thefts and a reported shooting in San Bernardino. They're also ready and willing to help in other situations -- including fires, floods, and search-and-rescue operations.
"People tend to forget that here in San Bernardino County we have a lot of resources for fires and rescues," said Sgt. Paul Howe, a veteran pilot with the sheriff's aviation unit. "We have 10 airships that can do buckets and retardant. We have at least 10 pilots, and we're all carded by OAS (the federal Office of Aircraft Services). That means we're cleared to fight fires -- federal fires and federal incidents."
Howe, 55, has been with the San Bernardino County sheriff's department since 1985. He is one of several pilots who say local resources often get overlooked during big fires.
"We've sat here on the ground and watched these mountains burn down at least four times," Howe said. "When it hits the fan out here, anywhere in Southern California, that homeowner doesn't care what kind of helicopter it is dropping water. When these disasters happen, we have to be ready to go.''
The sheriff's department has three Type II helicopters, capable of airlifting seven-person helitac teams into fires, and retardant or water capacity up to roughly 700 gallons. Seven smaller Type III helicopters are bucket-ready.
"It boils down to public safety and protecting lives and property," Howe said. "You have public agencies with equipment ready to go. We should use it."
Attempts on Monday to reach Calfire aviation chief Mike Padilla, and Mike Dietrich, chief of aviation and fire for the San Bernardino National Forest, were unsuccessful.
'REALITY . . . POLITICS'
Another veteran pilot, 52-year-old Deputy Craig McConnell, tried to explain how a Vietnam-era helicopter is still of value for the sheriff's department. He stood next to a bulb-nosed craft known as "306" and checked a serial number to be certain of its age.
"It's 1971, a Bell UH-1," McConnell said. "A 'Huey.' We use it for search-and-rescue and fire. For South Ops" -- the Southern California Geographic Area Coordination Center in Riverside -- "this is a Calfire asset, so we can go anywhere in California."
Sometimes they get the call, and sometimes they don't.
"A lot of times we do, but not necessarily on federal fires," McConnell said. "They'll bring in aircraft hundreds of miles away, when we're sitting right here. A classic example of this is the Slide and Grass Valley fires.
"Is that right?" McConnell said. "No. But that's the reality and the politics of it."
Turning back to the 306 Huey, McConnell tried again to convey its relative worth as a public safety tool.
"It was an Army aircraft for utility work," McConnell said. "It could haul troops, equipment, supplies. It was a workhorse, a truck for the Army. That's what makes it a useful platform for us. It's well-built and there are plenty of parts, and compared to a lot of newer aircraft it's cheap to operate and easy to work on.
"It's like an old Volkswagen," McConnell said. "Looks kind of ugly, but it always starts, and it works forever."
The aviation mechanics who strive to keep older and newer helicopters primed and ready in Rialto were too busy for interviews Monday. Maintenance supervisor Curtis Stites worked with two other mechanics and a couple pilots, who had their hands dirty most of the time.
OK SOLO, BUT SPOTTERS WORK
Sheriff's Deputy Cliff Walters, a former Army pilot like some of his peers, is cleared to fly bucket missions on fires alone. But he works sometimes with Riverside County-Calfire Capt. Roger Copp, who acts as a second set of eyes when necessary.
"It makes it easier if you have another guy on board," Walters said. "We have six radios and when there's a fire there's a lot of other aircraft."
High-wind events that fuel the region's most destructive fires also make it unsafe to fly, Copp said.
"At 30 knots, say 35 mph, any more than that and we don't get off the ground," Copp said. "All helicopters, all fixed wing, all aircraft. It's a safety issue and a target issue. It's unsafe for people in the aircraft and you don't want to injure people on the ground. Especially when you take yourself into a canyon with fire, gusty winds and unpredictable fire behavior -- people on the ground are vulnerable. . . . There are a lot of things that are bad."
'GOOD MORNING AMERICA'
Winds gusting to 30 mph in the mountains and passes are possible beginning Wednesday, National Weather Service meteorologist Noel Isla said Monday afternoon.
"Wind estimates in the mountains and passes are 15 to 30 mph, most especially in the Cajon Pass, as well as the Cleveland National Forest," said Isla, who is based in San Diego.
Bill Patzert, a climatologist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, expanded on the forecast and warned people against barbecuing on Thanksgiving.
"It won't be a hot Santa Ana, it'll be cooler," Patzert said. "But it's still so dry the situation is very incendiary. It's dry and getting drier. Hopefully people have spent the past few weeks clearing some brush. But I doubt it. . . .
"Based on the complaints last time about response to the fires, the agencies don't want to take any chances," Patzert said. "They're staffing crews everywhere. A lot of firefighters are going to have their turkey in the field this year."
Patzert said he was invited Monday to speak about global warming and its contributions to disasters on ABC's Good Morning America.
"What I really wanted to talk about is zoning and population," Patzert said. "The reason these events keep getting worse and worse is more people keep moving into the danger zones. . . .
"It's not about global warming," Patzert said. "It's about population growth and zoning, and the search for affordable housing in Southern California. We're ignoring what nature's been doing for thousands of years, before written history."
So much for appearing on ABC.
"Good Morning America didn't want to hear that," Patzert said. "They interviewed people who wanted to talk about global warming."
No one answered calls Monday evening at the Good Morning America studio in New York.
'NOT THE NEW KIDS'
Whatever the forecast for Southern California this winter, Copp said he and other agencies have to be ready.
"One year you get the fires," Copp said. "Next time it's the floods. You can't ignore it. It's a double-edged sword."
Howe tried to sum up the aviation unit's readiness for nature's next move.
"When we work with the county, everybody's on the same page," Howe said. "When we get to the state and federal level it's different.
"I just hope people remember, when the next catastrophe happens, we're not the new kids on the block."
Video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bX1LpZY6rY
Red flag warning updated Friday morning 11/23/07 at
by Guy McCarthy
REDLANDS, Nov. 14 -- Better safe than sorry.
Even though another dry winter is forecast, authorities are preparing for rains that could trigger post-fire debris flows or flash floods in communities left vulnerable in the wake of last month's intense wildfires.
If hard rains do fall, communities in and below areas burned in the Santiago Fire in Orange County are among the most at-risk in Southern California, federal scientists said today.
Sue Cannon, a U.S. Geological Survey landslide specialist, is "furiously working on post-fire maps for the Santiago Fire," said Jim Bowers, a USGS hydrologist based in San Bernardino County. "Santiago is our number one priority for our debris flow folks."
Four years ago, Cannon worked with FEMA and the Environmental Systems Research Institute of Redlands (ESRI) to produce preliminary post-fire debris flow hazard maps after the Old and Grand Prix fires in October 2003. Sixteen people died in boulder-laden flash floods near the mouths of canyons at the base of the San Bernardino mountains on Christmas Day 2003.
Cannon and other USGS scientists are leading efforts to produce 25 hazard assessment maps addressing concerns for all the burned areas in Southern California, said USGS spokeswoman Catherine Puckett. More than 750 square miles burned in the fires last month, forcing thousands of residents from their homes.
'AS BAD AS THEY'VE SEEN'
The Santiago Fire burned areas are of particular concern because hundreds of residents live in canyons that are partly denuded of vegetation.
"This is as bad as they've seen, as far as potential for erosion," Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather said Wednesday of field reports from his staff, who are working closely with Burned Area Emergency Response team scientists. "Fire damage isn't unusual, but some of these canyons haven't burned in our recorded history. You could expect to see a lot of run-off."
Federal Emergency Management Agency staff are part of the current mapping project, Puckett said.
The maps Cannon, FEMA and ESRI produced in San Bernardino County in 2003 gave preliminary assessments of debris-flow probability, and peak discharge estimates that could be generated by debris flows in watersheds that burned in the Old and Grand Prix fires. She projected how watersheds might react to one-hour duration storms of 25-year, 10-year, and 2-year rain intensity.
Cannon could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
"She's working on maps that will come out in a few days, or next week," said Leslie Gordon, a USGS spokeswoman based in Menlo Park.
'GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS'
The forecast for this winter is dry, said Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. But it is impossible to rule out unexpected, intense rains that could unleash debris-laden flash floods, Patzert said.
"The consensus here is for below average precipitation," Patzert said. "That's good news for the people in the burned areas, but bad news for people in places like Idyllwild. We could still have more fires. It's a double-edged sword. There might be another Santa Ana over Thanksgiving.''
Even if nothing else burns again for the next five years, it's going to take time for more than 750 square miles of watersheds to recover from the most recent wildfires. More than 2,000 homes burned and the death toll directly linked to the fires climbed to 10 yesterday.
And whether it rains this winter or not, canyon communities in the Cleveland National Forest still need protection that includes weather monitoring devices, Prather said. He was gratified Wednesday to hear about Cannon's mapping project, as well as plans to install at least one camera on Santiago Creek.
"We already have a creek monitor gauge on Santiago Creek," Bowers said. "We'll install an online web camera there, capable of taking a picture a second. We are working hard on this."
Bowers worked on a prototype post-fire debris flow warning system touted by USGS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in September 2005. The prototype system focused in part on the Grand Prix and Old Fire burned areas.
Prather said he is seeking information from communities that have dealt with post-fire debris flows in recent years. He said he wants to learn more about planning and potential clean-up if debris flows do occur.
2003 POST-FIRE RECOMMENDATIONS
The following recommendations are verbatim from Cannon's 2003 report, "Emergency Assessment of Debris-Flow Hazards from Basins Burned by the Grand Prix and Old Fires of 2003, Southern California."
-- It is imperative to insure that people occupying businesses, homes, and recreational facilities downstream of the basins identified as the most hazardous are informed of the potential dangers from debris flows and flooding.
-- Warning must be given even for those basins with mitigation structures at their mouths in the event that the structures are not adequate to contain potential debris-flow events. We further recommend site-specific debris-flow hazard assessments be performed above structures and facilities identified as being at risk and that could be impacted by flows from basins smaller than those evaluated here. In addition, this assessment is specific to post-fire debris-flow activity; further assessment of potential hazards posed by flash floods is necessary.
-- And last, we highly recommend the establishment of an early-warning system for both flash floods and debris flows. Such a system should consist of an extensive reporting rain gage and stream gage network coupled with National Weather Service weather forecasts. Any early-warning system should be coordinated with existing county and flood district facilities.
Links to NOAA/USGS post-fire debris flow warning system information:
Link to Cannon's 2003 post-fire debris flow hazard report:
by Guy McCarthy
WATERMAN CANYON, Nov. 9 - Ruins are still here, and so are the rocks. Remains of the victims are buried elsewhere.
But other evidence of what happened in Waterman Canyon on Christmas 2003 may now help save lives.
Nearly two years after 16 people died in post-fire flash floods north of San Bernardino, federal scientists in 2005 launched a prototype debris flow warning system that focused on the Old and Grand Prix firestorm footprints.
A similar warning system would be a valuable tool to help protect vulnerable Southern California residents living in and below
watersheds charred in the region's most recent wildfires -- even if no hard rain falls for the next five years.
At least one public safety official coping with fire's aftermath in at-risk communities wants a warning system in the near future.
"We're hoping to get sensors in here to monitor run-off," Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather said in a phone conversation Friday.
"All I want is the information," Prather said. "So I can tell residents, 'You might want to consider leaving,' or that 'You must get out of here. There's nothing we can do to hold it back.' "
Prather spoke after a helicopter flight over nearly denuded ridges and drainages that burned in the Santiago Fire, including the hard-hit enclave in Modjeska Canyon.
In spite of forecasts for another dry winter, Prather said he and other officials aren't taking any chances.
"It's not going to take very much rain to cause a lot of run-off," Prather said. "And it won't be just water. It will be debris and
Local, state and federal agencies are working together to prepare for a worst-case scenario, Prather said. But they still don't know what to expect.
"I'm confident we have the right people in here assessing the situation," Prather said. "We have BAER (Burned Area Emergency
Response) teams all over the place. Crews are already clearing debris out of creek channels and along the roadsides. They're putting in a lot of hay bales. It really is a race against Mother Nature."
Hundreds of canyon residents who evacuated during the Santiago Fire have returned. The fire ravaged more than 28,000 acres and was declared 100 percent contained Thursday.
"We're a long way from done," Prather said. "You've seen the Grand Prix and the Old Fire. We're worried, I can tell you that. We're definitely worried."
A CHURNING WALL
Waterman Canyon, where Christmas 2003 survivors described a churning wall of mud, rock and trees that killed nine children and five adults, is a vast mountain watershed compared to the lower-ridged draws and gullies of the Cleveland National Forest. Two others died that Christmas Day in nearby Cable Canyon, at the mouth of another immense cleft in the San Bernardino mountains.
But smaller canyons can be deathtraps too, especially if they are fed by adjacent burned watersheds. In February 1978, a post-fire debris flow killed 13 people in a canyon community called Hidden Springs, in the Angeles National Forest.
About 22 months after the Christmas 2003 deaths, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced its intent to test a prototype debris-flow warning system across Southern California.
In a September 2005 report, NOAA and USGS officials stated they would focus intensive research on the 2003 firestorm footprint scorched in mountain watersheds of western San Bernardino and eastern Los Angeles counties.
The report cited the 16 Christmas Day deaths, as well as San Bernardino County public works costs of $26.5 million for road repairs and removal of 4.1 million cubic meters of debris from local flood control basins.
Forecasters and geologists said they planned to use mobile radar equipment, rain guages and other instruments in strategic locations such as Lytle Creek and Waterman Canyon.
The immediate goal was to produce detailed warning maps in real time, based on up-to-the minute forecasts and precipitation measurements as storm systems approached hazard-prone communities.
by Guy McCarthy
MODJESKA CANYON, Nov. 8 -- The good news for anyone residing in or below burned watersheds in Southern California is the coming winter is forecast to be much like the last -- dry and drier.
The bad news is that could mean more wind-driven fires before the year is out.
Either way, it is impossible to rule out unexpected, intense rain storms that could trigger damaging post-fire erosion in communities in and adjacent to nearly 800 square miles scorched by the region's latest round of wildfires.
So from Malibu to the San Bernardino mountains and the canyons of Orange and San Diego counties, residents and authorities were hard at work this week preparing for the next potential disaster.
In the close-knit town of Modjeska Canyon on Wednesday, Colleen Wahelan stood outside her hillside home and said she hopes erosion control efforts get started in her neighborhood immediately.
"I think they need to plant smart to re-stabilize the hillsides," Wahelan said. "They need to get the right resources in here as soon as possible. I hope they'll evaluate specifically which homes are at risk."
One look at the fire-ravaged slopes up and down Modjeska underscored her worry. Blackened, ash-coated ridges and steeps loomed above, inter-mixed with stands of chaparral that had not burned. At the east end of town, many homes appeared to be creek-side and just above the floodplain in normal circumstances.
"I've been here for 12 years, but being at the bottom of the hill for the mudslides, and all this ash on the hillsides is a concern," Wahelan said.
The aftermath of the Santiago Fire in Modjeska Canyon illustrates an Army Corps of Engineers description of the recurring fire-flood cycle in Southern California. The Corps has for decades helped design a number of flood control facilities in the region.
"The occurrence of wildfire plays a significant role in the augmentation of erosion rates from Southern California watersheds," states an Army Corps document, "Debris Method," which was updated in February 2000. "Highly flammable chaparral species, steep slopes, loose sediments, hydrophobic soil conditions created by the intense heat generated by wildfire, and the aggravating influence of dry offshore 'Santa Ana' winds provide Southern California with one of the most volatile fire/erosion complexes in the world."
Emergency erosion control work continued Wednesday up and down canyons that had burned in the nearly-contained Santiago Fire. County inmate crews labored, lining stretches of Santiago Canyon Road and other roadways with hay bales held in place by steel rebar. Bigrig and flatbed truck drivers hauled load after load of more baled hay into Modjeska and other canyon communities in need of protection.
Meanwhile, scientists including biologists, geologists and hydrologists did what they could to assess fire damage, in their roles with various Burned Area Emergency Response teams. BAER teams in five counties hope to have reports ready within 10 days of full containment on the respective fires they're working.
Specific information about exactly how many homes are at risk of potential post-fire flood damage in Southern California may not be available for days or weeks. But some BAER teams had compiled preliminary reports by Thursday afternoon, including several in Los Angeles County.
'GRAVITY IS NOT YOUR FRIEND'
Near Castaic and Santa Clarita in north Los Angeles County, where the Buckweed, Magic and Ranch fires burned close to 100,000 acres, there are an estimated 160 homes, two apartment buildings and a strip mall considered threatened by debris flows or mudslides, said L.A. County Forester John Todd. The numbers came from a U.S. Forest Service BAER report, Todd said.
In Malibu, one house is considered at risk from post-fire erosion from above.
"I believe that this is due to the fact that many of the areas that burned in Malibu were away from structures," Todd said. "In addition, many threatened Malibu structures are positioned on ridge lines or viewpoints where debris flows are less of a threat.
"On the other hand, many of the homes that were adjacent to burned areas in Santa Clarita are at the toe or base of the slope," Todd said. "And in debris flow situations gravity is not your friend."
Here is the preliminary list of at-risk structures compiled by BAER teams in Los Angeles County and released Thursday afternoon:
Buckweed, Magic, other Santa Clarita Fires
- 160 Homes
- 10 Outbuildings/barns
- 1 Business
- 1 Strip Mall (including several businesses)
- 2 Apartment buildings
- 2 Mobile Home Parks
- 1 Probation Camp
Canyon Fire, Malibu
There are at least 100 personnel assigned to BAER teams in Southern California, according to U.S. Forest Service officials. Preliminary reports from teams and other officials working in San Bernardino, Orange, San Diego and Ventura counties could be available in the next few days.
In the meantime, the outlook for a dry winter may be encouraging for anyone threatened by potential erosion from burned areas. But the remainder of the Santa Ana wind season combined with anticipated low precipitation leaves open the possibility of more fires this fall and winter, said Bill Patzert, a climatologist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena.
Whether it rains or not, "we ain't done with further consequences," Patzert said.
by Guy McCarthy
RUNNING SPRINGS, Oct. 23 (filed at 8:50 a.m.) -- Dawn emerged in menacing shades of orange and red Tuesday in the smoke-shrouded San Bernardino mountains, where firefighters and residents braced for another day of high winds and uncertainties.
From the posh end of Lake Arrowhead to the secluded enclave of Green Valley Lake, more than 130 homes and structures already lay in ashes.
About 3:30 a.m., Running Springs Fire Chief Bill Smith stood at the top of a narrow road lined with unburned homes and cabins, looking into a steep gorge filled with flaming trees, and recounted what he knew of the destruction in his town since sundown.
"For Running Springs and Green Valley Lake, this is worse than the Old Fire," Smith said softly, recalling the devastating firestorms four years ago. "We're losing a lot of homes tonight. Probably 30 here, not counting Green Valley Lake. We'll get a better count in the morning."
If Smith's estimate was accurate, more than 150 homes had burned in the San Bernardino Mountains as of Tuesday morning.
Further east in Green Valley Lake, firefighters and law enforcement officers had been ordered to pull out of the town of about 800 residents. Flames were crowning through torching treetops late Monday, and with only one narrow, winding road in and out, it was deemed too dangerous for overnight structure protection.
No one in the firefighting and public safety community would fault Smith or anyone else for exercising caution when gusting Santa Ana winds stoke flames in the drought-stricken San Bernardino National Forest.
Nearly a year ago and less than 50 miles away, five Forest Service firefighters were killed in another wind-driven firestorm authorities said was ignited by an arsonist.
Meanwhile early Tuesday, no fire officials or law enforcement officers in Running Springs or nearby Arrowbear had any knowledge of what had transpired overnight in Green Valley Lake.
"We tried to get everybody to leave, starting way before sundown," Smith said. "Some people just didn't want to go. We told them, 'You're on your own.' "
Two pre-dawn attempts to drive the side road off Highway 18 up to Green Valley Lake showed why public safety officials withdrew. The town's boosters take pride in billing the community as the highest in the San Bernardino National Forest, above 7,000 feet elevation.
But like so many other idyllic spots in Southern California, beatific qualities come replete with hazards.
The same altitude that normally brings clear skies and ample sunshine also places Green Valley Lake in the path of some of the strongest wind gusts in the mountains.
More than a dozen homes had already burned there Monday. At 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. Tuesday, dense smoke reduced visibility to nearly zero, flames and embers crept along the roadsides, and a threatening orange glow filled the immediate horizon.
A check on the persistent souls of Green Valley Lake would have to wait. Smith, who lives near Running Springs, said he and many of his co-workers and neighbors have prepared for the disaster still unfolding in their tight-knit community, and they're grateful that so far no one had been seriously injured. But that doesn't make it any easier to cope with mounting property losses.
"It's difficult to fight fire in your own community and watch your town's homes burning," Smith said. "We've got firefighters and firefighter families and neighbors losing homes."
Under overhanging canopies of parched pines surrounding homes near Highway 18, fire engines growled slowly back and forth through ember-popping, orange-tinted gloom. Some firefighters walked, observing, but able to do little else as each fresh gust of wind unleashed showers of sparks that spread more flames slowly but surely.
At an intersection with Wilderness Road about 4:30 a.m., angry furnaces of condensed fire roared and screamed as they consumed several structures, including an A-frame residence.
Beleaguered fire commanders like Smith hope aircraft can fly early and often today. As dawn crept in Tuesday under a red-tinted moon and towering heads of smoke and ash, what the day would bring remained uncertain at best.
by Guy McCarthy
One of the oldest operating casinos in the western United States stands on the California-Nevada border above the northeast shores of Lake Tahoe.
First built in 1927, the original Cal Neva Lodge burned to the ground a decade later, on May 17, 1937. Local historians note that with another busy summer season coming, owner Norman Blitz had 500 men work around the clock to rebuild in 30 days.
Business had boomed during Prohibition. The remote Cal Neva was already popular with regulars that included an Irish-American inside stock trader, liquor supplier, and Hollywood investor from Boston named Joseph Patrick Kennedy.
Cal Neva's owners over the years included some of Kennedy's liquor customers, who enjoyed entertaining a leader of such far-reaching business ventures. Kennedy and his sons, including the charismatic and photogenic John Fitzgerald, were frequent guests at the Cal Neva.
Framed photos of the 1937 blaze still adorn the 70-year-old walls of what used to be the Cal Neva's main gaming room. The space is divided by a gold-and-silver line painted on the floor, through a fireplace, and up the stone chimney to show where California ends and Nevada begins.
I was there one morning in late May 2007, before a visit to Tahoe's south shore. I don't bet on cards or craps or slots. I just wanted to see this place where gamblers used to push their tables back and forth across the state line, depending on which cops came calling, and where the leader of one of the most powerful families in U.S. history liked to unwind with organized crime bosses, movie stars and prostitutes.
Frank Sinatra owned the place for a time in the early 1960s. The rest of the Rat Pack and Marilyn Monroe partied here too. I came for a whiff of the Kennedys.
A man and his wife were taking turns posing for photos by the fireplace, so I offered to take their picture together. We chatted a bit and it turned out they were Irish, from Dublin, staying at the Cal Neva for their son's wedding that very day at the resort.
The old casino still has games of chance, but it also does a tidy business hosting weddings above the steel-blue lake. I mentioned my dad's side of the family is Irish-American. Next thing you know we're talking about Donegal and Galway and what a coincidence it is to meet here where the Kennedys came to relax.
The groom's mom pointed into another room and told me in hushed tones she'd been told there was a secret chamber or passageway that gamblers of yore could use for escape if necessary. In the next breath she invited me to the wedding reception. "Sure, you'd be welcome you would. Be here at 7. It'll be grand."
I thanked her profusely. But I had things to care of, and I was exhausted. I'd just finished driving overnight from San Bernardino.
The main reason I'd come was to check with the Forest Service at the Tahoe Basin Management Unit. I wanted to ask about the light snowpack this year, and to see whether they had any heightened concerns about fire season.
I'd visited the management unit three years earlier, to report on controlled burning near Baldwin Beach on Tahoe's southwest shores. The same drought and infestation that's killed millions of trees in the San Bernardino National Forest has wrought similar damage in Tahoe forests over the past decade.
This past winter had been one of the driest on record in Southern California, and the thin Sierra snowpack had already raised concerns among state water officials as far away as Los Angeles. It seemed fair and prudent to ask for a fire season update in a mountain community similar in so many ways to Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear.
Later that day -- about seven weeks ago -- a Forest Service spokesman agreed the dry winter and light snowpack to date were factors in ongoing concern for fire danger. But he stressed that portraying the threat in strong terms can be counter-productive, leading to hand-wringing that could paralyze fuel reduction efforts. It sounded like he didn't want to scare people.
In a sense, he was right. Residents had been warned for years. Why start a panic? The spokesman gave me a copy of a document titled "Stewardship Fireshed Assessment."
I didn't have time to stay. I had people to see in Las Vegas. My last glimpse of the lake was before sundown, in my rearview mirror.
A month later, a wind-driven blaze destroyed more than 250 homes and businesses near the south shore. Officials called it the worst disaster in the Tahoe basin since whites first settled there in the mid-19th century.
Originally posted July 18 2007.
by Guy McCarthy
It was pitch-dark just after 3 a.m. when I started up a trail near the south fork of the Santa Ana River. Dim light from my headlamp guided my way on the path.
In my pack I carried snowshoes, a shovel, and an avalanche probe - just in case. It was mid-March, several months ago. Winter and spring had been dry. Even in high country above 10,000 feet, snow was sure to be thin compared to recent years.
I’m no scientist – just someone who spends time in the mountains. I figured one way to see how dry it’s been would be to visit a place where snow two years ago was 12 feet deep. Whatever it looked like now, it would mean something.
In a pocket I carried photos from a day in early May 2005. One showed a colleague standing in a vertical pit he’d dug in snow below Little Charlton Peak. In the picture, he reached over his head as far as he could with the shovel. The blade barely touched the edge of the pit.
The pictures also showed a twisted pine rising out of the snow next to the pit. The lifeless tree would be my landmark.
It was still dark when I headed off-trail into a tangled meadow littered with scores of downed trees. A lot of snow had fallen on slopes above in the winter of 2004-05 - enough to unleash avalanches that snapped thick trees more than 40 feet tall.
In the distance I could make out a profile of ridges and summits that form the highest mountain spine in Southern California. I headed for what looked like the shoulder of Little Charlton Peak. By first light, three hours from the trailhead, the low-angle slope steepened.
Staying off slick patches of ice and snow, I leaned into the grade and used steel-tipped poles to keep traction on shattered rock and loose dirt. Gasping for breath as the altitude increased, stepping slowly from tree to tree, I looked up occasionally to where tall evergreens gave way to shorter, gnarly limber pines.
Relief came about 9 a.m. when the slope eased to a level knoll, a few hundred feet below the summit. The map indicated roughly 10,300 feet above sea level.
A twisted tree stood where I thought it would, though it looked taller. I pulled out the photos. Details matched. It was the same tree.
The ground at the base of the tree was bare rock and dirt. A tiny patch of snow covered a few pinecones. I looked up at where the soles of my boots had trudged on snow 22 months before.
State water officials stopped measuring snowpack in the Santa Ana River watershed in the 1990s. Comparing May 2005 and March 2007 at the same spot just shows there was a lot of snow two years ago, and little snow now.
Whether snowpack this year has anything to do with global warming - and what it means for mountain forests still blighted by drought and infestation - is for scientists and politicians to debate.
Simpler observations indicate what we might see this summer and fall.
Fire season nearly covered the calendar the past 12 months. At lower elevations this spring, from Hesperia to the Hollywood Hills, wind-driven fires have already chewed through acres of chaparral.
Earlier in March near Lake Arrowhead, San Bernardino County officials celebrated cutting down a symbolic millionth “hazard” tree. No one knows for sure how many more millions of dead trees are still out there, in the nation’s most urbanized mountain forest.