Creekside Creators


“Fire on the Mountain”

Our community is, once again, under siege. 

The Mosquito Fire started on Tuesday evening in the Middle Fork of the American River drainage (at the Oxbow Reservoir) and has grown exponentially in a very short period of time. Massive wildfires have certainly become more frequent and more explosive over the years, but for as long as I can remember they have always been a threat in the Sierras.  

My first day as a Sophomore at Summerville High in Tuolumne City (a small Gold Rush Town near the Tuolumne River) in 1987 started off normally. I saw my friends, got my locker, and picked up my gym clothes for P.E. After lunch, a group of us were hanging out on the grass out front when a thunderstorm rolled in. It was hot. Lightning lit up the sky. As teenagers we thought it was “hellacool” and didn’t think much more of it. We were just killing time between classes. 

I woke up the next morning and looked outside; the sky had the orange glow that has now become so common. My mom was listening to her scanner like she always did back then – no internet. She told me that the lightning had sparked wildfires in the area. I could tell she was anxious, but I said “Okay” and left for the school bus. On the bus ride, I had my Sony Walkman and a mixtape I had made a few days before at a Grateful Dead show. And, yes, I listened to “Fire on The Mountain” the entire way to school.

When the bus arrived at school, it was clear that nothing was normal. Everything had changed. Forest Service Hotshot Crews had moved in, using our school as a staging area and eventually as incident command. The bus turned around and I returned home. And so began a long extension of summer break.

This was the start of Paper Complex Fire and what was officially called the “Stanislaus Complex”. Not many of us knew what a Complex Fire was until that day. 

What is a Complex fire? A complex fire is when two or more individual fires are located in the same general area and are assigned to a single incident commander or unified command.

How do Complex fires start? Complex fires start when multiple lightning strikes produce multiple fires and then these fires merge to make one large incident. 

In 1987, complex or larger fires were not only rare but they also did not cause the level of destruction that they do now. At that time, this fire was the 4th largest in California history; burning 146,000 acres, destroying 28 structures, and causing evacuations. It was devastating for those families and certainly anxiety provoking for the community. But it was small by current standards. Over the years that I worked as a Helitack pilot and lived in fire camps, it became clear that fires were becoming increasingly fierce. Last summer in the Tahoe area, for example, we experienced both the Caldor and Dixie fires that started as simple, single source fires. The Dixie Fire burned 963,309 acres (larger than Rhode Island) and destroyed 1,329 structures – it’s the largest single source fire in California history. The Caldor Fire, while large and devastating to our community – 221,835 acres burned and 1,003 structures destroyed – was only the 16th largest California fire to date.

Turning back to the Mosquito Fire. It has already grown exponentially due to extreme heat, dry fuels, and inaccessible terrain. Many structures have already been destroyed and there are wide range evacuations. The images and videos from those communities are heart wrenching. 

The big open question is where will this fire go and how quickly will it get there? Since there is not much fire crews can do to fight the head of the fire, the answer will depend on temperatures, wind speeds and directions, and eventually (hopefully) precipitation. Our family lives part time in both Lotus at the South Fork American River (where we recently launched Coloma Lotus Whitewater) and are in an Evacuation Warning zone. In Olympic Valley, where we also live part time, we are not yet in an Evacuation Zone; but based on the proximity of the fire and the topography we seem to be in the path that this fire will travel. 

The advances in both technology and fire science that have been made from 1987 to today are simply incredible. Back then the only information the community could get was from TV news, scanners, and word of mouth. We had no informed idea what these fires would do. Today we still have TV news, scanners, and word of mouth (social media now), but we also have NASA satellite infrared mapping imagery  online weather,  and fire maps In almost real-time not only fire scientists but those of us with fire experience can predict a fire’s potential path and scale.  We know the resources on scene, containment numbers by the hour, evacuation Maps are continuously uploaded on line and texted as alerts. With this information we are equipped to make informed decisions. 

The decision my family is making right now is do we leave Olympic Valley and go to Lotus to move our belongings (especially all the assets we recently purchased to start our rafting company) and do so while the area is still in a warning zone. If it becomes a mandatory evacuation order we will no longer be allowed to enter. Or do we stay in Olympic Valley and start getting prepared here? Currently, the fire is 13 miles from Lotus and 22 miles from Olympic Valley. For now, after analyzing the fire maps, weather, topo maps, I believe the fire will advance up the Middle Fork and Rubicon Canyons toward Olympic Valley and Alpine Meadows. And so, we will stay put, pack some personal items and be ready to leave Tahoe if an evacuation warning comes.  

Why are we making this decision? It’s not without some risk, and is certainly causing stress for Valerie who is leaving town on Sunday for a work conference. But I believe it’s the right decision, in part because we don’t want to add to the traffic and chaos on Highway 49; getting in the way of fire crews and families evacuating under mandatory orders. And because I believe the fire is going the opposite direction. Here are some reasons why:

  • The fire is predominantly heading East to South East currently
  • The head of the fire is thus moving mostly East away from Lotus
  • As is typical, daytime prevailing winds will likely push this fire up canyon and up slope and night time winds will shift and push fire back in on itself. 
  • Fire crews will likely work the flanks of the fires directly and set up containment lines along the west and north flanks and direct the fire into the forest away from the majority of structures to the West

So, for now, our family will stay home in Olympic Valley. We will stay informed, be prepared to leave, and offer help to others. And if we have to quickly go to Lotus and pack up there too, we will try to do so, if we still can. In the meantime, we will do what we can to stay out of the smoke and listen to another rendition of “Fire on the Mountain”.

Here is some resources that might be useful and links to helpful.