Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Lamoille Canyon Fire Recovery Update



Winter is heading this way like a big old freight train, and USFS road crews have been up in Lamoille Canyon trying to re-open the canyon road after the devastating Range 2 Fire.  A fair bit of work has been going on behind the scenes, with the goal of reopening the road as quickly as possible.  Winter is the deadline, though - weather that makes it impossible for them to work up there will shut road repair efforts down until spring.

Right now rocks the size of watermelons are releasing from above the road, but the unstable house-sized rocks have so far stayed put.  Road crews are clearing rockfall, putting up signage, repairing culverts, felling "widowmaker" trees, and soon will be rebuilding much of the damaged guard rail.  Approximately 90% of the existing rail will be able to be reused, which will speed rebuilding and save a bunch of money.

USFS District Ranger Josh Nicholes has assembled an advisory committee of interested locals, including representatives from Elko County, the snowmobiling community, cabin owners, the Lion's Club, and non-motorized recreational users.  It's a diverse group, and it's coming to the table with some good suggestions for ways of managing user safety, communications, community resources, and more.

USGS engineers have completed a slope stability study that purports to show the impacts of anticipated winter weather on the burn area above the road.  That study will be pretty critical in being able to anticipate slope stability above the road through this first post-burn winter.

Here's one of the USGS runoff maps showing risks of debris flows in the burn area from a "design storm" (the storm size used in the study... the USGS modelled seven different storm intensities). This particular map shows anticipated debris flows should we get one of the "pineapple express" rain-on-snow events that we get every five years or so, or a very heavy rainfall of about 1/2" in 15 minutes.

It's a damned sobering map.  Click on the image to look more closely.



Here's a map from another model, this time looking at what would happen after a typical monsoonal fall rain, like the kind we get every two years or so:



Keep in mind that this is an inexact science, and that the effects of precipitation are cumulative.  A few days of precipitation may accumulate to trigger the same effects as the shorter, more intense design storms in the models.

Pretty obviously, the biggest risk from debris flows is on the canyon's northeast aspect, across the creek from the road.  However, there could be moderate to significant risk of debris flow from sources uphill of the road, depending on the storm... and any debris flow that originates there can be anticipated to run across the road, possibly damaging it even further.

The committee is working under the premise that, once the road is reopened, it will remain open until conditions warrant closing it for safety reasons.  To that end, the USFS is installing a temporary gate at the canyon mouth, above the Powerhouse Picnic Area, so that the road can be opened (and closed, if necessary) more easily that it can with the current physical barriers.  USFS and community monitors will tour the road after significant storms, assessing safety hazards and considering any potential need for a road closure.  One of the ideas is to use a "green light, yellow light, red light" system, similar to the one avalanche forecast centers use to communicate avalanche danger, to rate potentially dangerous road conditions.  It's all still a work in progress, but progress is indeed happening, even if it doesn't look like it from behind the Jersey barricades.

Today, Nicholes stated that he anticipates opening the road to snowmobiles, if not automobiles, should road crews be unable to finish before winter.  Subject to change and subject to conditions, of course.

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Progress on raising money to rebuild the ravaged Lion's Camp is encouraging, as well.  So far the club has raised $40,000 of the $1,000,000 they're trying to raise to rebuild the camp.  They are one of the beneficiaries of this year's Festival of Trees, so that number can be anticipated to go up. 

There are a few other options for donating right now, as well:
  • The Elko Host Lion's Club has a GoFundMe page specifically for rebuilding the lodge and camp.  Click here to donate.  All proceeds go directly to the project... GoFundMe is NOT collecting a service fee.
  • The Club is receiving donations for the rebuild through Elko Federal Credit Union.  Contributors can also mail a check to the club at PO Box 19, Elko, NV  89803
  • The club is doing its annual See's Candy sales, at the old Spoon Me location across from JoAnn's Fabrics.
  • The club is selling raffle tickets for a special edition Elko Centennial rifle.  Tickets are limited to only 250 sold, for $100 each.  Pick up raffle tickets at the club's Festival of Trees booth, or at their See's Candy sales location.
The re-build will happen in three phases, and the club obviously has a lot of fundraising to do to get even the first phase off the ground.  So give.  Even if you've already donated, buy a raffle ticket or some See's Candy.  Makes a great Christmas gift.

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And then, there's the reseeding.  More than 140 volunteers turned out to help collect and plant mahogany seeds in the Canyon a couple of weeks ago, and volunteers will have another chance to help with reseeding this weekend.  The Nevada Department of Wildlife is hosting a sagebrush seed collection event on Saturday, 1 December, at the Spring Creek Campground.  Call 777-2391 on Friday, or check NDOW's Facebook page if the weather's not great to find out if the event is going on or has been postponed.




Thursday, October 11, 2018

Devastating... and yet...


I had a chance to tour the burn area in Lamoille Canyon this morning, as the USFS is allowing very limited vehicle-only access to the area for the next couple of days, before closing it again to visitors.

It was devastating to see, and I was repeatedly in tears.

It was fascinating, as the bones of the canyon, and its history, were laid out and vulnerable.

It was powerful, and timeless, as if I were seeing the canyon for the first time.  I was often disoriented, as familiar landmarks became strange... or disappeared.

And it was stunningly beautiful, in an austere, moonscape way.

As you approach the canyon, the heroism of the firefighters is on display, as time after time, inch after inch, you can see where they fought back the fire, where they held the line, at roads and trails and the dozer line they created.

The juxtaposition of what remains of this gorgeous fall and the hideous scar from the fire is heartbreaking. In some places, the fire still makes the recent rain turn to steam.



Very quickly, it becomes apparent that this fire was a fury, not only killing the brush but erasing it from the moonscape it created.


Most of the lower canyon recreation sites burned.  Oh, they were able to protect the USFS picnic ground, and Thomas Canyon Recreation Area, too.  

But the climbing areas burned, and burned hot. The grasses and brush that stabilized the climbing trails are gone. The anchoring trees are gone. 



Sport Rocks



Dead Snag wall, with the namesake dead snag burned.



Colossus. 


Sunshine, an ice climb whose approach is now rubble.


Scout Camp, probably the most popular ice climb in the canyon, with its tree anchors gone. 
This photo also shows the Beaver Tail ski area, along with much of the route for the Talbot-Lamoille Trail.  



The trailhead for the Secret-Lamoille Trail is ravaged, and the first half mile of trail is denuded. The fire made runs at the northeast aspects of gullies farther along the trail, meaning future users will be in and out of burn areas for the first two-plus miles of their trip.



The trees and brush that stabilized the Y Chutes are gone.


The approach to Terminal Cancer got much easier,
as a lot of the heinous bushwhack at the base is gone.


It goes on and on. You get the picture. Think of a recreation site in the lower canyon, and it burned.

And yet...

And yet...

The Canyon has changed in my lifetime, several times. And now it has changed again. You can see the remnants of the Canyon's history now that once was lost to the trees.

Here, you see a bit of the old road up the canyon, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression.  When I was a child, the narrow, scary road was the only way a vehicle could get into the canyon.  I still remember how terrified I was when we drove through the Narrows... the road one skinny car wide, with no guard rail.



There, you see the remains of the old flume line, the foundations from the power generator, from the CCC barracks.


Pete's Cabin, there for all to see.

The fire slowed as it climbed uphill, and largely spent its fury by the time it reached Thomas Canyon.



And that's where they made us turn around.  Not safe, they said, even though that was the part of the canyon that didn't burn.

It was enough, though.  My heart and my eyes were full.

Even injured, the canyon was beautiful.  Majestic. The melted guard rails will no longer stop your car from plunging down the same steep cliffs that were there before. Mankind's nod to safety is fleeting.

The same stone sentinels soar overhead, framing a changing sky of clouds. The scars from the flood year are there, vulnerable, waiting to be ripped open again by the spring flows.

And the sound has changed.

The birdsong now echoes from the cliff faces, with no trees to stop the music.



The cliffs made sacred by time, and by the ashes of a friend,
stand guard while the mountains heal.

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Monday, October 8, 2018

Rebuilding the historic Camp Lamoille lodge, and other fire news

Before the burn

I attended a meeting this evening of the Northeastern Nevada Stewardship Group, where representatives from the US Forest Service, the Nevada Department of Wildlife, the Nevada Division of Forestry and NNSG reported on current conditions and potential directions for restoration after the devastating Lamoille Canyon fire.

There are a lot of updates to report:

CAMP LAMOILLE - The Elko Host Lion's Club has started a GoFundMe account to rebuild the historic Camp Lamoille Lodge.  Click here to donate.  The club is trying to raise $200,000, and the effort is just getting off the ground.  Donate, and share that you did on your social media accounts.  Every nickel counts.

The camp is on the National Register of Historic Places... no word on whether the Lions will be chasing potential funding sources through that listing.

The USFS district ranger, Josh Nicholes, stated that the USFS is "100% behind" efforts to rebuild the historic lodge.  It was originally designed by USFS architects, and built in 1939 using funds provided by philanthropist Max C. Fleischmann.

LAMOILLE CANYON ROAD - Right now, the road is the USFS' biggest concern in the canyon.  The guard rails on the road burned, making it much easier for drivers to plummet down steep cliffs while they're gawking at the burn area.  In addition, house-sized rocks above the road have been destabilized and there is major concern that one or more of them will come crashing down without warning.  There is also significant smaller rockfall - smaller than the huge rocks but still large enough to smash a windshield and take out a driver.  The USFS has experts working on the problem, but it won't be solved in the next day or two.  Right now the tentative date for reopening the road is November 30th.

RESEEDING - It's critical that reseeding be done quickly in order to minimize the spread of invasive weeds in the canyon.  The agencies plan to reseed with a mix of native grasses, and don't plan to introduce non-native species that may be more attractive to specific wildlife species (for example, mule deer).  Unfortunately, seed availability for forbs (broadleaf plants like native wildflowers) is very, very limited this year, with poor growing/seed gathering conditions and the huge demands on seed supplies from the many western fires under restoration.

Right now NDOW plans a sagebrush seed gathering day for volunteers to be held December 1st, with the location and volunteer information to be determined.  NNSG plans on hosting a seed gathering day targeting mountain mahogany in November, date and location TBD.  Unfortunately, mountain mahogany will be very, very slow to re-establish, but seeding will at least give them a chance.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that the fire spread so quickly that much of the canyon's root stock survived the blaze.  The fire spread more than 150 acres every 15 minutes... the entire 9000+ acres were on fire in only 12 hours.

TRAILS - The news is less good when it comes to trails.  The USFS is considering closing the Secret-Lamoille Trail for a year in order to prevent people from cutting the (now very visible) switchbacks in the first half mile, and letting the seedings get established.  I suggested that there might be other ways of approaching the problem, as are often used in Colorado and other more trafficked areas where many feet need to stay on the trail.  It's all very early in the process, but decisions are being made so now's the time to pick up the phone if you'd like to see another solution.

RESEARCH AND EDUCATION - NNSG plans on doing research into fire effects and recovery at a couple of different sites in the burn area.  In addition, they plan on partnering with the agencies and Friends of Lamoille Canyon to provide education and information on the effects of fire and how nature recovers after a burn.

WHAT'S HAPPENING NOW - The fire remains 90% contained.  Crews are working to mitigate hazards in the burn area, in addition to the road.  They're felling hazard trees in the campgrounds, clearing streams to prevent spring flooding (thank you, says this Lamoille resident), repairing dozer lines, treating noxious weeds and working on slope stabilization - where they can.  It's steep up there and there isn't much they can do in a lot of places.

Overall, the agencies are very much facing a triage situation given the number of massive fires this year, including the South Sugarloaf fire in Elko County earlier this summer.  That fire burned a popular USFS campground just below the Wildhorse Dam, as well as thousands of acres, hundreds of miles of fence, and hundreds of miles of roads.  All of the dozer line needs to be reseeded, firebreaks and green breaks need to be established, invasive weeds need to be treated.  All while the agencies are robbing Peter to pay Paul.

++++++++++++++++++++

I spoke this afternoon with a woman whose friend was at the Spring Creek Rifle Range when the fire started.  Apparently there were a number of people using the range to sight in their rifles that morning - every table was in use.

That gives me hope that the fire investigators might have more than tracks and casings to work with.  We'll see.

"Pretty gut wrenching"

I spoke yesterday with a friend of mine whose family owns one of the historic cabins up Lamoille Canyon, and who was allowed in to visit the burn site over the weekend.

In his words, "it looks like a different place up there.  Pretty gut wrenching."

And that, folks, would be the understatement of the century.

Thankfully, only one of the historic cabins burned, but several of the other cabins lost sheds and other outbuildings.  And, based on the photo he sent me and on the aerial footage I've seen, there was a tremendous amount of tree loss through that part of the canyon and on down.  The leafy, shady canopy that made those cabins such a wonderful, private getaway is largely gone.

As always, there are silver linings to most catastrophes, and there are here, too.  As an enthusiastic backcountry skier, I'm happy that access to several lower-canyon runs just got a lot easier.  And, in a good snow year, they likely got a lot longer, too.  There is an historic trail in the burn area, the Talbot-Lamoille Trail, that has been extremely difficult to find in recent years.  With the brush removed by fire the tread should be a lot more apparent - this could be a great opportunity to locate and re-establish that old trail.

I'd trade that silver lining for my canyon back to where it was a week and a half ago any day, and twice on Sundays.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++

As of yesterday, the fire was 90% contained, with a perimeter expected to be completed by October 10th.  Total burn area 9,196 acres.  There are still 60 people working the fire - two hand crews and one aircraft, commanded by an Elko County local, Matt Petersen.  There is snow on the peaks now, we've had a couple of heavy rains, and the concern now is what the oncoming winter weather will do to the burn, and how the conditions are hampering efforts to effect repairs up there.

Where was all this rain two weeks ago?

I'm heading to a meeting tonight of the Northeastern Nevada Stewardship Group to discuss canyon restoration and potential volunteer opportunities.  I'll let you know what I find.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Fire map and update


The ash is starting to settle a bit, and the firefighters have released a map showing the perimeter of the Range Two fire that burned Lamoille Canyon, Seitz Canyon, and Right Fork Canyon, and portions of Thomas Canyon, Hennen Canyon, Snell Canyon and Talbot Canyon.

The good part is that the highest parts of Seitz and Lamoille Canyons didn't burn, protecting the fisheries in Seitz and Lamoille lakes, as well as the incredible mountain ecosystems there.  The top of Right Fork Canyon survived the blaze, as well.  The bad part is that four trails were badly burned, including the Secret-Lamoille Trail, the Seitz Canyon Trail, the Right Fork Canyon trail, and the old guide trail that runs between Pete's Corner and Talbot Canyon - the Talbot-Lamoille Trail.

Joe Doucette from NDOW tells me that the ash from the fire will have a significant negative impact on the aquatic life in the effected area, which is disturbing.  Snell Creek is home to endangered Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, and Lamoille Creek has always been a popular fishing stream.  All of them drain into the Humboldt River, which waters much of northern Nevada.

NDOW and the USFS have their work cut out for them assessing and mitigating the damage.  Josh Nicholes, the USFS district ranger, tells me that the existing closure through Nov. 30th is to give them time to get started with that process, but that the closure may be lifted earlier than that based on conditions.

There is a volunteer move afoot to help with reseeding, deadfall removal, and other necessary recovery activities.  I'll post up information as it becomes public.

Watch this space.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Black is the color of my heart today


Lamoille Canyon burned.  This photo is from around 3:30 PM, September 30, 2018.

The canyon was sacrificed to stupidity. To people who didn't have the common sense to put a rifle range someplace where a fire could be contained, and to close it down - or at least staff it - during extreme fire danger. To people who ignored another, smaller, fire started by shooters using the range a couple of years ago, who ignored another, smaller fire just west of the range a couple of weeks ago.

To people who ignored red flag after red flag after red flag.

The people who started the fire were the apex of a huge heap of people making stupid, selfish decisions all based on their BY GOD given rights TO SHOOT THEIR GODDAMNED GUNS ANYWHERE AND ANYWHEN THEY BY GOD FEEL LIKE IT.  High winds and extreme fire conditions be damned.  And reality be damned, too - it's been amply demonstrated that many, many people in this area aren't at all responsible when it comes to firearm ownership and use. People who consider themselves responsible firearm owners have a responsibility to face the FACT that a large percentage of people who own guns AREN'T responsible.  DON'T make good decisions.  Since our Constitution says that any Tom, Dick and Harry can buy a gun, responsible gun owners need to be responsible enough to establish and maintain boundaries that safeguard the rest of us from these asshats' complete fucking stupidity.

The Second Amendment crowd goes on and on about onerous firearm regulation.  Bullshit.  I fail to see the regulation, here.  Whoever started this fire likely bought their gun legally by flashing a drivers license and passing a laughable joke of a background check.  There was no requirement for education, no requirement for the most rudimentary demonstration of skills and knowledge.  No requirement that this idiot show that he knew enough to not be out there shooting in high wind in dry grass on a red-flag fire condition day.  On a day when we hadn't had rain in months.

Spring Creek Association posted a few rules for their rifle range, assuming these idiots would read and follow them.  Well, guys, they didn't.  Nor did they use an iota of common sense.  And that, my friends, was entirely predictable.  As were the consequences.

Lamoille Canyon burned.




Road at the mouth of the canyon.  The Secret-Lamoille trailhead area burned, as did the remains of the historic flume.  Firefighters saved Ruby Dome Ranch... the fire burned down to the corrals where cowboys were scrambling to finish the work they'd started early in the day before the fire overwhelmed them.


Right Fork Canyon


The access point for Terminal Cancer Couloir.


Scout Camp, including the ruins of the lodge built during the Great Depression.



What remains of the historic lodge.  It makes me want to cry.  So many memories there.


See a single word about fire safety or extreme fire conditions? 
I don't either.

As of today the USFS anticipates the canyon road will be closed through November 30th.  The Spring Creek Rifle Range and Campground are closed until further notice.  That means access to the following trails is closed:  Secret-Lamoille Trail, the Ruby Crest Trail (Lamoille Canyon trailhead), Island Lake Trail, Right Fork Trail, Talbot-Lamoille Trail, Thomas Canyon Trail, Hennen Canyon Trail (accessing Griswold Lake and Ruby Dome), Seitz Lake Trail.






Sunday, April 29, 2018

Review - Secret-Lamoille Trail, Lamoille-Talbot section


A friend of mine - a photojournalist and adventure sports writer - recently blew through town on his way back home from covering the Sea Otter, a huge season-opening mountain bike race meet in California.  While he was here, he decided to give the completed portion of the Secret-Lamoille trail a spin, and here's what he told me via e-mail, along with some photos he took:
"I’ve been riding in the Rubies for about 12 years now. I first rode them back in about 2005, returning from Colorado to the Bay Area, where I lived at the time. I asked the desk clerk at my motel if there was anywhere to mountain bike and she sent me to Lamoille Canyon. My expectations were low and since it was November I hit snow pretty early in my ride and didn’t get far. However, what I saw stuck with me and I’ve been going back at regular intervals, ever since.

"Although I’ve explored the Rubies a bit, my main ride is the one that goes to the pass at the top of Lamoille Canyon. It’s pretty steep and rocky and definitely not for everyone. The scenery and descent are fabulous, though.

"A couple of years ago Sue took me on a short hike up the Secret-Lamoille Trail. Aside from easy access and friendly grades, it didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time. However, after riding it for the first time (the morning after our phone call), I have very different feelings about it. Other than a couple of corners that were too tight for me to make, it’s a very, very nice trail. It flows well and I think it has pretty broad appeal to both beginners and experienced riders. The climb up was pretty comfortable without being boring or easy; and the descent was super fun. I like that they left some rocks in the trail to keep things entertaining. And as you’ll see from the photos I took, the landscape is absolutely spectacular.



"Lamoille Canyon and the Rubies were already a worthy mountain biking destination. But if the Secret-Lamoille Trail can be completed, they will have a whole lot more to offer. The Secret-Lamoille Trail is more than just a fun trail, too. It would provide increased access to the whole Ruby Mountain range, most of which is blocked by private ranches. It’s the beginning of what could be a huge trail network. I would love to see that."
It's gratifying to get such a glowing review from someone who's ridden some of the country's most epic trails, and who has covered some of the most important MTB events in the world. The even more exciting part is that there is the teeny tiny possibility that IMBA, the International Mountain Bicycling Association, may be interested in working with locals to get the trail, finally, completed and built to USFS spec for an MTB and equestrian trail.

We'll see.  The potential is there to develop a trail that could earn IMBA's Epic Trail designation - a designation that will put Elko County on the map for mountain bike tourists. I'm not counting chickens, at least not these ones, but stranger things have happened...

More pretty pictures from my friend John Shafer, a man perhaps better known in MTB and photography circles as Photo-John.  Click on the pictures to make them bigger - you'll be glad you did.