Last September, the massive King fire swept through the Eldorado National Forest, turning more than 63,000 acres of public land into a vast dead zone of blackened trees and scorched earth. On Saturday, more than seven months after authorities say an arsonist started the blaze, park officials reopened the damaged lands for public use.
Forest Supervisor Laurence Crabtree said he decided to time the reopening to the start of trout fishing season after getting a number of phone calls from people who wanted to come back to the area.
“It’s a day of returning into the mountain country for a lot of people,” Crabtree said.
Jacob Alway of Citrus Heights and his sons David, 15, and Landyn, 12, made their way to Stumpy Meadows Lake on Saturday and caught 10 fat rainbow trout.
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“That’s what we’re having for dinner tonight with garlic and onions,” Jacob Alway said.
He said he’d been coming to the area since he was a child and that the dead trees around the lake looked terrible compared to the lush canopy that covered the hillsides before the King fire.
Others, including Leanne Knutson and Larry Alameda, of Sacramento’s South Land Park neighborhood, ventured into the backcountry to gather the edible and valuable morel mushrooms that pop up after forest fires.
Heavy rains on Friday and Saturday kept many away. Mist clung to the ground Saturday afternoon, swirling along barren hillsides and around towering piles of charred debris.
But rangers say the returning sun could make for a bumper crop of mushrooms this week. Fans of the fungi include home cooks and those who drive from as far as Oregon and Washington to gather mushrooms to sell to restaurants.
“There are certain species that are more prolific after a fire. Morels are a big one,” said Blake Engelhardt, a botanist with the U.S. Forest Service in the Eldorado National Forest.
Gathering more than a few mushrooms requires a permit that costs $20 for up to 40 pounds of mushrooms. Some mushroom hunters on Saturday trudged along Wentworth Springs Road, one of the main roads through the park, carrying big plastic pails of mushrooms.
Another activity that’s expected to draw forest visitors is firewood cutting. It also requires a permit, which starts at $30 for two cords. Huge numbers of dead and downed trees are a boon to wood cutters.
Investigators say the King fire started when a suspected arsonist, Wayne Allen Huntsman, lit a fire near the community of Pollock Pines.
Strong winds drove the blaze northeast, destroying a dozen homes. It raced up the steep Rubicon River drainage toward Hell Hole Reservoir before an army of firefighters and rainstorms brought it under control.
Forest officials warned visitors of the danger of falling trees, especially during windy conditions, and said anyone in the forest should pay careful attention to their surroundings.
“There are still hazards in that fire area, primarily standing dead trees that will eventually fall,” Crabtree said, talking about his decision to reopen the area. “But the public had felt strongly about wanting to access their lands, and I respected that.”
Call The Bee’s Hudson Sangree, (916) 321-1191. Follow him on Twitter @hudson_sangree. Bee photographer Randall Benton contributed to this report.