General Grant, Boole trees spared from Rough fire so far

San Bernardino National Forest firefighters Logan Costello, right, and Andrew Duran mop up on a back burn area near Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park on Saturday as firefighters work to protect the giant sequoias from the encroaching Rough fire.
San Bernardino National Forest firefighters Logan Costello, right, and Andrew Duran mop up on a back burn area near Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park on Saturday as firefighters work to protect the giant sequoias from the encroaching Rough fire.

Being on tree watch puts a lot of weight on Luis Magana’s shoulders.

Because he’s not watching just any tree. Magana is monitoring General Grant, the second-largest tree in the world and a longtime destination for tourists worldwide.

On Saturday, fears that the 129,000-acre Rough fire might fell the magnificent sequoia in Grant Grove lessened when it became apparent that backfiring and monitoring efforts have helped protect some of the world’s most highly treasured trees.

“It’s getting better,” Magana said. “Yesterday (Friday) it was raining down ash.” On Saturday, falling ash was more like a light drizzle, he said.

He was keeping an eye out for hot embers flying over the grove from other areas of the fire. In particular, he watched for tiny flaming pieces of black bark that could set off spot fires with the potential to grow.

“I keep hearing them say what would happen if we lose this,” said Magana, who was raised in Cutler-Orosi. “It’s a huge responsibility.”

Watching other firefighters stare at the trees in wonder, many perhaps seeing them for the first time, only intensified the gravity of his mission.

“They have that ‘wow’ look in their eyes,” he said. “It’s humbling.”

They have that ‘wow’ look in their eyes. It’s humbling.

Firefighter Luis Magana, watching as other firefighters see giant sequoias for the first time

Much of the success in the battle to keep Grant Grove safe took place before the Rough fire began, said Mike Theune, Kings Canyon National Park fire information and education specialist.

The work included clearing underbrush in the grove and setting prescribed burns that kept fire from overrunning it.

Steep topography in Kings Canyon has allowed the fire to jump from ridge to ridge, Theune said.

The combination of some of the nation’s most rugged terrain, drought, dead trees, high heat and low humidity has allowed the Rough fire to keep firefighters on the battle lines now for six weeks.

And while they may not have gained the upper hand, the fire hasn’t moved significantly in the past few days. The ancient Boole Tree in the Converse Basin north of Grant Grove, feared to be in the way of the blaze, has been protected by sprinklers and other firefighting actions and was still intact Saturday. Meanwhile, a battle on McKenzie Ridge was being fought to keep the fire from advancing toward Grant Grove or Dunlap, said James Schwarber, a fire information officer.

No structures have been damaged. Historic Wilsonia, a small community of approximately 200 cabins adjacent to the Grant Grove, received a light downpour of ash on Saturday but was safe from flames.

One of the 10 permanent residents living there is Dutch Scholten. He returned Friday from Alaska, where his daughter got married, to learn that he had to evacuate. So he grabbed some prized possessions and headed down to Squaw Valley.

“You talk about the perfect storm and other circumstances – this is possible right here,” Scholten said.

The YMCA Camp Lake Sequoia, considered in serious danger late Friday, also had no structures damaged.

The efforts haven’t resulted in more significant containment, Schwarber said, but under the treacherous circumstances “firefighters have done an incredible job from keeping the fire from moving further south.”

The next area of concern is the Delilah Lookout area on the fire’s western flank, which could push the blaze toward Dunlap and Highway 180. The concern led to the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office issuing an evacuation warning Saturday along Hopewell Road, near Highway 180 and Dunlap.

“They have been successful in holding this fire back,” Schwarber said. “The past two or three days, we are keeping the fire where we want to keep it.”

128,796 acresThe size of the Rough fire as of Saturday

New mapping done on the Rough fire put the blaze burning east of Fresno at 128,796 acres, the Forest Service reported Saturday morning.

With ash falling out of the sky around the Valley for the second straight day, the giant blaze remains at 29 percent containment. It is the largest fire burning in California and one of the largest in the nation. There are 2,500 firefighters assigned to the Rough fire, which began July 31 when lightning struck a mountainside in Kings Canyon.

Overnight Friday, the fire headed toward McKenzie Ridge, which is above Highway 180 and northwest of Grant Grove and Sequoia Lake. To cut off that progress, firefighters lit controlled burns to clear out brush that would otherwise catch on fire. Air tankers also dropped retardant along the ridge to block the fire’s path.

Efforts to protect homes and other structures between McKenzie Ridge and Highway 180 were also undertaken overnight Friday, the Forest Service said. Farther north in Kings Canyon, firefighters also did controlled burns near Cedar Grove to keep the fire north of the highway.

The YMCA owns 850 acres at Sequoia Lake and has a family camp, youth camp and skateboard park. One of those monitoring the fire Saturday was Russ Suydam, the YMCA’s volunteer fire marshal for the lake property.

He said the flames were about a mile from the lake. “Who knows what the fire is going to do,” he said.

Camp executive director Liz Long, who left the camp Friday afternoon, said sprinklers were laid out around the camp and that structure protection was the main emphasis for firefighters.

“It looked pretty bad from the north and west side of the camp,” she said.

Power to the camp was cut, staff left and the road was closed. The camp, she said, is comprised of five villages and structures surround the lake.

“They told us their goal was structure protection, so when we go back the forest may be gone, but the structures will stay,” she said.

Firefighters were urging her and the camp manager to leave. “They were asking us when we were leaving, we told them 10 minutes and they said ‘good,’” Long said.

Robert Dean, the YMCA camp facilities manager, said the fire was surrounding the camp in a “horseshoe” pattern. He said the camp’s conference area, which includes the CEO’s cabin and workshop, were at the highest risk along with the Tulequoia kids camp.

Dean said he wanted to stay at the camp but left at the urging of firefighters on Friday night.

Dean was evacuated four weeks ago from Hume Lake Christian Camp and recalls the lightning storm that started it all on July 31.

It was a little bitty fire on the Monarch Wilderness, but by the next morning it hit the forest line and erupted.

Robert Dean, YMCA camp facilities manager, talking about how the Rough fire started

“It was a little bitty fire on the Monarch Wilderness, but by the next morning it hit the forest line and erupted,” he said.

As of Thursday, the firefighting effort had cost $79 million, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center.

The smoky conditions led the San Joaquin Valley and Mariposa County air pollution control districts to issue alerts for unhealthy air. The alert continues through Sunday. All outdoor activities are discouraged, especially for the young, seniors and anyone with lung or heart ailments.

Responsibility for fighting the Rough fire will transition Sunday when the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, led by Todd Pechota, is replaced by the California Incident Management Team, which has Rocky Opliger as its commander.

The American Red Cross of the Central Valley opened an evacuation shelter at the Sanger Community Center, 730 Recreation Ave. The Central California Animal Disaster Team has also set up emergency pet shelters at the community center. Over Friday night, 16 dogs and cats were sheltered there, spokeswoman Jessica Piffero said.

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin