The Donnell Fire had grown to more than 44 square miles as of Monday afternoon and it was estimated to be about a half-mile from Kennedy Meadows Resort & Pack Station, information officers with command staff said.

Forecasts in and above the Middle Fork Stanislaus watershed below Sonora Pass included light winds 3 to 6 mph, higher humidities, and no more red flag warnings Monday, followed by the chance for thunderstorms and showers through Tuesday evening.

A key for the continued survival of the historic Kennedy Meadows resort is the fire has so far remained north of Highway 108 on the east edges of the fire, while the resort and pack station are south of the paved road. Eastern progress of the fire has slowed since last week.

Command staff at Dodge Ridge estimated the 13-day-old blaze was 20 percent contained as of Monday, said Maria Benech, a public information officer for the Donnell Fire and a Stanislaus National Forest restoration coordinator for the 2013 Rim Fire.

The number of structures destroyed was reduced over the weekend by one, from 136 to 135. The main store-restaurant building at Dardanelles Resort burned to the ground Aug. 5 in the Brightman Flat area.

Structures still threatened

Structures destroyed include 14 of 16 cabins in the Wagner Tract, 36 of 57 cabins in the Brightman Tract, two of two cabins in the Buena Vista Tract, and one of 10 cabins in the Bone Springs Tract. No structures have been reported lost at Baker Station or in the Riverside, Cedar Grove, Deadman, Baker, East Douglas, West Douglas or Twin Buttes tracts.

An estimated 220 structures remained threatened. No injuries and no fatalities have been reported.

Stanislaus National Forest closures due to the Donnell Fire include the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness and Spicer Reservoir. Highway 108 was still closed at Eagle Meadow Road to the top of Sonora Pass on the east side. Alpine County deputies have closed the gate at Highway 4 and Highlands Lake Road. The Pacific Crest Trail is closed between Highway 108 and Highway 4.

Mandatory evacuations remained in effect along Highway 108 from Eagle Meadow Road to Kennedy Meadows, including all residences and campgrounds, and along Eagle Meadow Road and the Clark Fork Road area. The Mill Creek area is under an evacuation advisory.

Farther south, the Ferguson Fire on Monday was 86 percent contained at 150.7 square miles. Yosemite National Park staff reopened Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias to the public Monday, and they planned to reopen Yosemite Valley to the public at 9 a.m. Tuesday. The most popular destination in the park by far is Yosemite Valley, and it’s been closed since July 25.

Causes being investigated

Causes of the Donnell and the Ferguson fires remained under investigation Monday, according to command staff for the individual incidents.

The cause of the Donnell Fire and how it was handled in the first 48 to 72 hours has sparked controversy. Some believe the fire started as a controlled burn or prescribed fire, and that little was done initially to extinguish the blaze before it blew up.

John Buckley, director of Central Sierra Resource Center in Twain Harte, and a former woodland firefighter for 13 years, sent out an e-newsletter to CSERC subscribers summarizing how fires have raged in California for the past month and seeking volunteers for restoration projects.

Alan Haack, a 77-year-old resident of Standard, responded to Buckley and disputed some of his points. Haack shared the email exchange with The Union Democrat.

“I couldn't disagree more with your notions that what we need are controlled burns for the simple reason that they don't stay controlled,” Haack said. “Perhaps they can control the fire, but they can never control the smoke. We have just spent another summer and soon fall breathing toxic smoke and look forward to clean air.”

Suppression efforts questioned

Haack suggested Buckley and CSERC support clear-cutting wide fire lines around local towns “before they burn up and we lose everything.” Controlled burns produce a toxic smoke that is dangerous to health.

Haack also said he believed there was no concerted effort to extinguish the Donnell Fire in the first two days, adding, “Too many people were there and know that isn't true. There was no suppression and now there is no Dardanelle.”

Haack said his family goes back generations in Tuolumne County, and his grandfather helped develop Long Barn in the 1920s.

Buckley said in a phone interview the Forest Service did not do a controlled burn.

“They put out the wrong signs at the start. But there’s no issue about it being a controlled burn,” he said.

Buckley reiterated what Sarah LaPlante, Summit District ranger with the Stanislaus National Forest, told 500 people a week ago at a public fire meeting at Pinecrest Amphitheater, that command staff treated the Donnell Fire as a full suppression fire from the moment they learned about it the evening of Aug. 1.

Donnell Fire command staff have implored people to remember the blaze broke out at the same time megablazes were burning near Yosemite and up in Northern California. Resources were stretched so thin statewide the Donnell Fire command had to compete with other fire commanders for personnel and resources.

Buckley also said there are two clear, simple, important steps that can be taken to minimize Donnell-type and Ferguson-type fires, and there is already broad support across multiple stakeholders in the Mother Lode community.

“One is far broader environmentally science-based thinning projects that reduce dense forest stands in the areas that are accessible and most economically-managed,” Buckley said.

“The second step is the use of prescribed fire in cool season times of year when there’s the greatest ability to reduce fuels at very low risk of escapes,” Buckley said. “Those two strategic treatments, if they can be done at a big enough scale across the landscape, can combine to greatly diminish the risk of high-severity, incredibly expensive wildfires.”

People from diverse backgrounds including the timber industry, ranching and environmental conservation, in groups like Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions and the Amador-Calaveras Consensus Group and other collaborative organizations, support these two moves, Buckley said.

Broad support

The problem is insufficient Forest Service personnel and funding to do the scale of treatments that make a meaningful difference, Buckley said.

The challenge in the Central Sierra is that, in spite of comments Sunday from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke while he toured the Carr Fire, “We need far more funding from Congress for the Forest Service and these treatments,” Buckley said.

Zinke, while touring neighborhoods destroyed by the Carr Fire, said Sunday environmentalists have opposed logging that could have reduced the impacts of recent wildfires. Buckley said that is not true.

“Here in our region there have been no logging or thinning projects blocked by environmentalists in more than a decade,” Buckley said. “The only lawsuit was an action opposing salvage logging in the Rim Fire by outside environmental groups. And that project went forward smoothly because local environmentalists supported the compromise plan.”

Buckley also talked about President Donald Trump’s tweet a week ago on Aug. 6:

“California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire from spreading!”

And “Governor Jerry Brown must allow the Free Flow of the vast amounts of water coming from the North and foolishly being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Can be used for fires, farming and everything else. Think of California with plenty of Water - Nice! Fast Federal govt. Approvals.”

The water references in the president’s tweets stumped some Californians, stunned the science and academic communities in the Golden State, perplexed people at Cal Fire and the Forest Service, and generated bipartisan criticism of Trump’s understanding of water issues in California.

Trump’s insistence that California is burning because leaders are letting too much fresh water flow into the Pacific Ocean was factually incorrect.

California GOP strategist Rob Stutzman responded via Twitter directly to the president, stating: “This is truly nuts’’ and “Low water IQ.”

Buckley said he understands that whenever’s there a bad fire, people look for someone to blame. He said in the case of the Donnell Fire it was most likely a camper or fisherman who “foolishly left a smoldering campfire at the headwaters of Donnell Reservoir.”

There’s a popular campsite there.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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