A federal Burned Area Emergency Response team has been assigned to the lightning-strike McCormick Fire that’s burned more than 4,300 acres on mountain slopes above Clarks Fork Road and upstream from the Middle Fork Stanislaus River and Donnells Reservoir.
Roads, trailheads, parking lots and campgrounds, including Clarks Fork Road, Fence Creek Road, also known as Forest Road 6N06, and Fence Creek Campground, are directly below the McCormick Fire burn area.
The next time it rains hard on the McCormick burn it could mean tons of ash and other material will come down off the steep, blackened moonscape on the Alpine-Tuolumne county line. Depending on intensity of post-fire storm activity below Sonora Pass, hard rains could unleash fast-moving debris flows consisting of burned trees, rock, ash and other water-borne materials.
Watersheds that flow through the McCormick Fire include McCormick Creek, for which the fire is named, Drew Creek, Cloudburst Creek and Little Teton Creek. The burn area is on mountain slopes below the prominent Dardanelles rock formations, on the high rocky spine that separates the North Fork Stanislaus watershed from the Middle Fork Stanislaus.
The McCormick Fire is part of the Summit Complex fires that started in late July. They have been managed by the Forest Service for multiple objectives since then, including the benefit of restoring fire to a fire-dependent ecosystem.
Jim Frazier, the former Stanislaus National Forest hydrologist, has been appointed BAER team leader for the Summit Complex fires, Diana Fredlund with the Stanislaus National Forest said Monday.
Frazier said the BAER program evaluates all fires greater than 500 acres, whether human caused or naturally caused.
“The damage from fires isn’t always over when the flames are out. As we know, there’s flooding after fires and other values at risk and we want to evaluate what can be done to mitigate any potential risks,” he said.
Frazier said 10 people have been assigned to the Summit Complex BAER team, including soil scientists, hydrologists, archaeologists, engineers and a botanist.
“We’re looking at dealing with an emergency situation for the first year after recovery,” Frazier said. “One of the values we look at is life and safety for Forest Service employees and the public. We also look at property values, infrastructure, roads, natural and cultural resources.”
The BAER team for the Summit Complex fires began field evaluations three days ago, and they intend to have a report ready for Scott Tangenberg, acting supervisor for the Stanislaus National Forest, and other forest leadership probably by next week, Frazier said.
It was unclear Monday whether post-fire flooding and erosion would cause any concern at Donnells Reservoir, which is impounded by the first of several dams on the Middle Fork Stanislaus River downstream from the McCormick Fire burn.
Susan Larson, license compliance coordinator for the utility Tri-Dam Project that owns and operates Donnells Reservoir and Donnells Dam, was attending a conference and could not be reached for comment.
As of Monday, the Summit Complex fires consisted of four fires burning in the Summit Ranger District. The McCormick Fire, 4,332 acres, is north of Clarks Fork Road and Fence Creek Road. The Douglas Fire, 311 acres, is south and upslope of the Middle Fork Stanislaus, Douglas Picnic Area and Highway 108. The Bummers Fire, 29 acres, is near Bummers Flat and Forest Road 6N05. The Willow Fire, 10 acres, is located west of Groundhog Meadow and bound by Hammill Canyon Loop Road.
All four fires are lightning-strike fires, Frazier said. The McCormick Fire was sparked by lightning on Aug. 14.
On Sunday, the Forest Service posted a photo report on “Fire Effects on the McCormick.” It made no mention of a BAER team being assigned to the fire. It stated, “Typical fire behavior of the McCormick Fire includes the consumption of larger dead and downed debris. This restores vital nutrients and creates a mosaic of vegetation,” and “Active burning is occurring in the understory, like in this patch of manzanita. Some manzanita shrubs are ‘fire-dependent’ where the plant requires heat from fires in order to germinate and establish their next generation.”
The report also says removal of ground debris promotes the health of older trees and establishment of newer trees, a process that used to occur naturally through lightning-caused fires in the area known today as the Stanislaus National Forest.
Closures on the McCormick Fire include the fire area west of the Arnot Trail, Trails 19E18, 20E62, 19E67, Wheats Meadow and County Line trailheads, Fence Creek Road and Fence Creek Campground. Closures on the Bummers Fire include Forest Road 6N05 at Shoofly Creek north to Bummers Flat.
About 40 personnel remain assigned to the Summit Complex fires, which have burned a total of 4,682 acres. About 35 percent of perimeters on the fires are considered contained. The hoped-for date for full containment is Oct. 31.
“Crews continue to monitor and patrol the fires,” command staff for the Summit Complex fires said in a recent update. “As favorable weather allows, firefighters will use a low intensity backing fire to remove fuels from the fire's edge to the fireline.”
The McCormick Fire blew up Sept. 2 in the midst of the recent heat wave that brought temperatures approaching triple-digits near the Summit Complex fires. A white-gray smoke column towered over the McCormick Fire several hours, and Forest Service staff assigned to the blaze later said the blaze grew by 600 acres that day.
Fire activity on the McCormick Fire has been minimal since the heat wave began easing. Crews this week are dealing with cooler temperatures, with daytime highs in the 50s and 60s and overnight lows dipping into the 30s, with gusty winds at times. Forecasters with the National Weather Service in Sacramento say there’s a 20 to 30 percent chance of light showers Wednesday and Thursday this week.