“They’re hitting on the north side of the highway,” Diana Chappell texted from Kennedy Meadows at 4:25 p.m. Friday, along with a photo showing a helicopter several hundred feet above the resort and pack station’s main lodge.
At 5:06 p.m. she texted another image of a Vietnam War-era military surplus Skycrane helicopter dropping a white curtain of liquid on the Donnell Fire near Baker Campground, against a sickly, brown-beige, smoke-filled backdrop near the Middle Fork Stanislaus River below Sonora Pass.
A week-long battle to save historic Kennedy Meadows Pack Station & Resort from the out-of-control Donnell Fire remained successful as of Friday afternoon, as the red flag-heated blaze grew to more than 37 square miles with just 5 percent containment.
Geographic information system mapping Friday continued to show the Donnell Fire spotting and throwing embers east toward Kennedy Meadows and south up Eagle Creek.
Total structures destroyed by the Donnell Fire remained estimated at 136 as of Friday afternoon.
Firefighters and heavy equipment operators and staff and owners at Kennedy Meadows were busy checking hose lays and water sourcing from the Middle Fork Stanislaus River that flows through the resort property.
“People are working,” Sean Hammes, president of Forest & Land Works in Jamestown, said in a phone interview just before 3 p.m., speaking from Kennedy Meadows. “People are taking care of business. They’re doing fine. We don’t want people to panic.”
Historic gateway to wilderness
Kennedy Meadows is one of the oldest businesses in Tuolumne County history, and it’s known to generations of visitors as a gateway to the high, remote, scenic Central Sierra on both sides of Sonora Pass and Highway 108, and since the 1960s, as gateway to the Emigrant Wilderness.
Diana Chappell, an off-duty firefighter from Oregon, has been at Kennedy Meadows since at least Monday. She owns a cabin her grandpa built in the late 1930s in the Dardanelle area.
“Smoke is trying to lift a bit,” Chappell said in a text message just before 2:30 p.m. “We want it to do that so we can get the helicopters and retardant planes in here.”
Before noon Friday, Chappell texted that all the livestock, which includes more than 170 head of horses and mules, were still there at Kennedy Meadows except for two crews that left Friday morning to pick up groups that have been in the backcountry.
About 10 a.m., firefighters and resort staff, including wranglers who take care of the horses and mules, were heading out to soak structures and corals at Kennedy Meadows.
“No embers have reached us so far,” Chappell said. “We don't plan on letting any take hold.”
Chappell added that people at Kennedy Meadows have a well worked out plan for getting all the stock to safety if the need arises.
“For now they are comfortable and safe in their usual surroundings,” Chappell said.
Further west on Highway 108, as of 2 p.m. no structures had burned at Baker Station, also known as the High Sierra Institute Historic Baker Station, said Maria Benech, a public information officer for the Donnell Fire and a Stanislaus National Forest restoration coordinator for the 2013 Rim Fire.
There are several historic cabins and other structures at Baker Station. Since 2003, Stanislaus National Forest people have worked with people at Columbia College to restore the buildings and create the High Sierra Institute on Forest Service land.
Donnell Fire command staff said Friday morning that structure protection continued overnight along Highway 108 with backfiring operations east of Douglas tract and around Baker Station.
Crews also worked around the historic Bennett Juniper in Sardine Meadow west of Kennedy Meadows, with completed containment lines and backfiring operations in the area, “increasing protection around this legacy tree,” command staff said in a morning update. Tuolumne County historians say the Bennett Juniper is 3,000 to 6,000 years old. The Forest Service says the Bennett Juniper is “the largest Western Juniper currently living.”
A red flag warning issued for critical fire weather through 11 p.m. Saturday, combined with bone-dry, parched fuel conditions, may create the potential for rapid fire growth Friday and Saturday, command staff said.
On Thursday, pilots and aircraft assigned to the Donnell Fire dropped 42,000 gallons of retardant along the Highway 108 corridor, continuing structure protection in those areas, command staff said.
With one iconic resort dating to the 1920s already burned to the ground this week and the battle to save Kennedy Meadows still underway, and rumors and questions about how the fire started and why it wasn’t extinguished immediately, fire command staff are striving to remind people that the Donnell Fire broke out in the midst of a full-on statewide fire emergency.
When the Donnell Fire broke out Aug. 1 there were already at least eight people dead, including two firefighters killed in the Ferguson Fire on the west side of Yosemite National Park, and two firefighters and four civilians killed in the Carr Fire in Shasta and Trinity counties up in Northern California.
Command staff with the Donnell Fire say they have literally had to compete with interagency supervisors and commanders of already-raging, fatal megablazes for personnel and resources. There are thousands of firefighters trying to put out destructive, fatal megablazes up and down the Golden State, and they come from California and elsewhere across the U.S.
Donnell Fire command staff also insist they have tried to put the fire out from the moment they learned of it. They say it has never been considered a managed fire, a controlled burn or a prescribed fire.
The cause of the Donnell Fire was still listed by command staff as unknown and under investigation as of Friday afternoon.
Since the Donnell Fire broke out the evening of Aug. 1, firefighting staff on the blaze have been limited and remained at fewer than 650 personnel assigned to the fire as of Friday afternoon, a review of Tuolumne County sheriff’s and Stanislaus National Forest updates, emails, tweets and other social media posts shows.
Here’s a Donnell Fire timeline based on a review by The Union Democrat:
+ The Donnell Fire ignited at 5:49 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 1, near Donnell Lake on Highway 108 east of Pinecrest, Diana Fredlund with Stanislaus National Forest said in several updates last week.
+ The first Tuolumne County sheriff’s tweet was at 10:09 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 2, about a road closure and fire advisory for Tuolumne County, with a link to a Facebook post.
+ At 6:12 p.m. Aug. 2, Tuolumne County sheriff’s staff tweeted about an evacuation advisory for Wagner Track and Clarks Fork, noting that a 100-acre vegetation fire broke out “around 1 p.m. today” in the Donnell Vista area off of Highway 108. The tweet also included a Facebook post.
+ At 6:32 p.m. Aug. 2, the Sheriff’s Office tweeted the #DonnellFire “is burning in the Stanislaus National Forest on the Summit Rangers District in Tuolumne County off Highway 108 near Donnell Lake and Vista area. Forest Service reports the fire is moving to the northeast on the north side of the Middle Fork Stanislaus River.”
+ At 7:03 p.m. Aug 2, the Sheriff’s Office tweeted the Donnell Fire had grown to 350 acres with Camp Liahona Clark Fork added to the evacuation advisory.
Hotshot crews on scene
+ At 11:29 a.m. Friday, Aug. 3, the Sheriff’s Office tweeted, “Advisories remain in place for the #DonnellFire. USFS reports hotshot crews will be working today on gaining some containment of the 400 acre fire.”
This was the first mention of personnel assigned to the fire, and it did not specify how many firefighters and support staff were fighting the fire. Thereafter, staffing numbers became easier to follow from U.S. Forest Service updates.
+ By 1:30 p.m. Aug. 3, the fire was at 500 acres with 93 personnel assigned.
+ At 2:41 p.m. Aug. 3, U.S. Forest Service-Stanislaus National Forest staff posted on Facebook, “The Donnell Fire started Aug. 1 at 5:49 p.m. and is located near Donnell Lake on Highway 108. If you are on the 108 corridor, please drive carefully and watch for emergency vehicles.”
+ The first Stanislaus National Forest tweet about the fire came at 3:56 p.m. Aug. 3, retweeting a Sheriff’s Office tweet: “Thanks @TuolumneSheriff for the great photo.”
+ At 4:47 p.m. Aug. 3, Stanislaus National Forest staff tweeted “Mandatory Evacuations are been issued for Clarks Fork Road. (including Wagner Housing tract; Liahona; Peaceful Pines; and FS Campgrounds)The fire is estimated at 700 acres and is 1 1/2 miles from Clarks Fork Road.”
+ By 5:45 p.m. Aug. 3, the fire had burned 600 acres and 165 personnel were assigned.
+ By 3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 4, the fire was at 1,000 acres with 207 personnel assigned.
+ Later Aug. 4, command staff posted to Inciweb: “As of 2 p.m. today the sheriff announced a mandatory evacuation from Clarks Fork to the Dardanelle Resort. An evacuation advisory has been announced from the Dardanelle Resort to Kennedy Meadows on Highway 108. The California Highway Patrol has been requested to assist the sheriff’s office with evacuations. The fire has crossed the Stanislaus River.”
+ By 9 p.m. Aug. 4, the fire was at 1,750 acres with 207 personnel.
+ By 10 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 5, the fire was at 5,800 acres with 207 personnel. By 8 p.m. Aug. 5, the fire was at 6,000 acres with 273 personnel.
At 11:42 p.m. Aug. 5, Stanislaus National Forest staff issued a press release stating, “Due to extreme fire behavior on Sunday, the Donnell Fire jumped Highway 108 at Brightman Flat and forced fire crews to disengage from the fire’s intense edge, according to Lee Rickard, incident commander for the Central Coast Interagency Incident Management Team. The fire consumed numerous structures in the area of Dardanelle and Brightman Flat. An assessment of the amount of loss cannot be conducted safely or accurately until daylight hours Aug. 6. Fortunately, the areas affected by the fire were evacuated early on Aug. 5, resulting in no known injuries or fatalities.”
+ By 8 a.m. Monday, the fire was estimated at 12,000 acres with 277 personnel assigned. By 8 p.m. Monday, it was 13,200 acres with 410 personnel.
+ By 8 a.m. Tuesday, the fire was downsized to 11,344 acres with 481 personnel. By 8 p.m. Tuesday, it was at 13,814 acres with 496 personnel.
+ By 8 a.m. Wednesday, the Donnell Fire acreage was listed as the same, 13,814 acres with 517 personnel. By 8 p.m. Wednesday, it was at 17,941 acres with 563 personnel.
+ By 8 a.m. Thursday, the fire was estimated to be 21,097 acres with 602 personnel. By 8 p.m. Thursday it was downsized to 19,744 acres with 617 personnel.
+ As of 8 a.m. Friday, the Donnell Fire was estimated at 23,824 acres with 643 personnel.
Historic Kennedy Meadows
Kennedy Meadows is considered the Gateway to the Emigrant Wilderness and its principal trailhead, a Tuolumne County Historical Society website says.
It’s been a popular recreation area since 1917, with horseback riding, camping, hunting, fishing, hiking, and backpacking for visitors from the Mother Lode, California, all over the U.S. and the rest of the world. The 244-acre property includes meadows, pine forests, and a mile of the Middle Fork Stanislaus River.
Before the Gold Rush and statehood for California, many Native Americans traveled, traded, hunted and fished in the area known today as Kennedy Meadows Resort and Pack Station.
In 1886, two brothers, Andrew and J.F. Kennedy of Knights Ferry, claimed Kennedy Lake, the meadow, and about 3,000 acres of close-by grazing pasture in the high country, according to the Tuolumne County Historical Society.
Ownership of Kennedy Meadows property transferred to the Tuolumne County Water and Electrical Power Company in 1906 when Union Construction Company started building Relief Dam above the Middle Fork Stanislaus.
Hunting mountain lions
From 1907 to 1963, California mountain lions were listed as bountied predators by state and federally sponsored programs, according to the Tuolumne County Historical Society. Charles Ledshaw started a hunting camp in the 1910s in the western meadow and he got paid to kill mountain lions.
In 1917, a gas station, store and packing business were built by Ledshaw and a partner, and they sold it 12 years later to Frank and Lurene Kurzi.
The original Kennedy Meadows lodge was built in the 1930s by the Kurzis and it burned to the ground in the winter of 1940-1941. A new lodge was completed in July 1941, three months before filming of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” with Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.
Historians say the Kurzis sold the resort in 1945 to Cliff and Rose Mitchell. Reno and Geraldine Sardella purchased Kennedy Meadows in 1961. A website for the resort and pack station mentions a man named Lou Bitner played a role in this era.
In 1970, Willie Ritts and Jay Gilbert bought the resort. The resort and pack station website says Ritts worked hard for 27 years to improve the resort and pack station, and to build lasting relationships with customers. Ritts bought out Gilbert in 1977, partnering with Matt Bloom.
Bloom eventually took over sole ownership of the resort and pack station, leasing the property from Pacific Gas and Electric Company, according to the Tuolumne County Historical Society.
In 1997, Bloom and his family took over management of the resort and pack station and they are carrying on the tradition of Kennedy Meadows.
In October 2007, much of Kennedy Meadows Resort was destroyed by fire. The new lodge, which includes a store, restaurant, lobby, and office, and cabins were rebuilt in June 2008.
Kennedy Meadows is just one of several historic getaways located near the Middle Fork Stanislaus below Sonora Pass, the area now burning in the Donnell Fire.
The main store-restaurant at Dardanelle Resort, which dated to the 1930s, burned to the ground Sunday in the Donnell Fire.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.