The King fire’s rampage through the forestlands of El Dorado and Placer counties is threatening hydroelectric facilities and power lines that deliver water and electricity to the Sacramento region, as well as some of the Sierra Nevada’s most treasured recreation areas.
The 6-day-old fire – allegedly started by an arsonist and burning more than 73,000 acres – has cut off the flow of energy from hydroelectric reservoirs owned by at least three utility agencies, either because power stations and power lines have burned or they’ve been shut down as a precaution.
It also has likely damaged a number of recreation sites, including areas at Stumpy Meadows Reservoir and along the Rubicon River. The latter is home to some of the last pockets of old-growth forest in the area and to protected spotted owls.
On Thursday, the U.S. Forest Service closed trails leading into Desolation Wilderness from within the Eldorado National Forest, and cautioned people to avoid that area and the Granite Chief Wilderness to the north.
Officials remain in the dark about much of the damage, however, as access to many burned areas is simply not available. But early reports include damage to a power station operated by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which has cut off electricity delivery from the utility’s network of reservoirs in the Sierra.
SMUD is supplementing its power supply with electricity purchased on the open market but does not expect customers to be affected, said spokesman Chris Kapra. The utility also evacuated about 20 employees who normally work at its damaged Camino power station and moved them to its headquarters in Sacramento.
“It’s not impacting our customers at all. It doesn’t seem to be anything too severe,” Kapra said. “It just seems like some cables and some wires burned up. But we do have generation and transmission issues up there where we can’t get power out.”
The Placer County Water Agency is concerned about similar damage occurring to its hydroelectric generator and power lines at Hell Hole Reservoir. Overnight Wednesday, the King fire made a huge run north toward the reservoir. The water agency evacuated an employee who works there, and energy was shut off to the powerhouse as a precaution.
Einar Maisch, director of strategic affairs at the water agency, said he doesn’t know yet whether any of its facilities or power lines have been damaged. Another facility downstream, known as Middle Fork Powerhouse, is also threatened by the fire.
On Thursday, the agency’s board of directors approved an emergency declaration that allows managers to bypass usual bidding procedures to rapidly acquire supplies and manpower to respond to the fire, if necessary.
“We’re very, very worried,” Maisch said. “We’re hoping for the best and expecting the worst, I guess.”
Maisch said a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. power line, which serves Hell Hole Reservoir, and a number of power poles were knocked down by the fire. The information could not be confirmed immediately with PG&E.
The El Dorado Irrigation District narrowly avoided damage to a pipeline and flumes that transport water from its network of Sierra reservoirs to a generating station on the south fork of the American River. Flames came within 8 feet of the pipeline and crossed over several areas of concrete and wooden flume, said hydroelectric manager Dan Gibson, but fire crews were able to hold back the fire and protect the facilities.
“Monday night it was really, really hairy,” Gibson said.
The district had to evacuate 17 people from its hydroelectric system headquarters, known as Camp Five, along Highway 50. It shut down its hydroelectric system on Sunday but had it operating again late Wednesday. Now, a tree-cutting crew is already at work removing burned trees that threaten the system.
“I’ve got to make sure these trees don’t fall and hit our canal,” Gibson said.
The fire also may have burned a number of recreational facilities that are treasured by residents and visitors.
Joy Barney, a spokeswoman for the Eldorado National Forest, said the fire burned most of the perimeter around Stumpy Meadows Reservoir. She said a campground and boat launch at the west end of the reservoir were not damaged, but officials don’t know about other campgrounds there.
“The fire was very severe around Stumpy Meadows,” Barney said. “The west side was not burned, but all of the other areas around the lake were burned.”
The reservoir also serves as a water supply for the Georgetown Divide Public Utility District, but water deliveries have not been affected, said George Sanders, interim general manager.
“I was in there today and, really, there was nowhere you could go because a lot of the trees were still smoking,” Sanders said. “Our big concern currently ... is what may have been done to the watershed.”
Forest Service officials are already planning restoration efforts, even though the fire is still burning. A Burn Area Emergency Response team is evaluating where erosion-control measures will be needed most. Many reservoirs and streams in the area are a water supply for the Sacramento region. Erosion could harm aquatic habitat, reduce storage capacity in some reservoirs, and hurt water quality.
Maps of the fire perimeter show that the blaze burned north through the Rubicon River canyon on its way to Hell Hole Reservoir.
“It has probably been severely damaged,” Barney said of the canyon.
The canyon is home to the popular Hunter Trail, an area where old trees are known to host populations of rare spotted owls. The river itself is a favorite spot for swimming and is home to a wild trout fishery prized by anglers.
“That’s a beautiful and wild river that’s got a lot of scenic beauty,” said Craig Thomas, conservation director at Sierra Forest Legacy. “A lot of black bears live down in there.”
While the fire damage appears severe, it is not necessarily all bad for the environment, Thomas said. Erosion will be the big concern initially, depending on what kind of winter lies ahead. Within a year of the fire, wildflowers and other plants can be expected to bounce back vigorously, and many of the large burned trees left behind will provide habitat for wildlife.
“Nature is not dead,” Thomas said. “But it’s a change, and there are things about it that aren’t great and things that provide other opportunities and benefits for wildlife. There’s a lot of value to burned forests.”