Airborne smoke and haze from the Donnell Fire settled down low in Clarks Fork before 8 a.m. Monday, and tufts of denser smoke curled from isolated hot spots still smoldering near Highway 108 west of Dardanelle Resort.
About five miles farther east, Kennedy Meadows Road was open, and the historic resort and pack station, another mile south of Highway 108, was open for business. Wranglers worked with horses, the cook toted two sizable turkeys into the kitchen, and recently returning workers exchanged hugs inside and outside the main lodge.
As the sun rose, the day dawned clear above Kennedy Meadows and higher up to the south in the Emigrant Wilderness.
“We need to get the word out,” Matt Bloom, owner of Kennedy Meadows Resort & Pack Station, said on the porch outside the main lodge before 10 a.m. “We’re open, and the air’s clean up here.”
Highway 108, which had been closed for the past two weeks from Eagle Meadows Road to Sonora Pass, was reopened Sunday afternoon, with conditions.
Forest Service and Tuolumne County deputies were patrolling Highway 108 from Eagle Meadow Road to U.S. 395 and asking people to refrain from stopping on the sides of the road because firefighters and fire trucks and utility trucks and other responders to the Donnell Fire are still using the road, said Deborah Coble, a spokesperson for the interagency command staff on the Donnell Fire and a regional fire communications employee with the National Park Service in Anchorage, Alaska.
In addition, Coble said, cabin permittees who lease or own property in the Donnell Fire burn are not being allowed in until an assessment team has finished evaluating safety hazards in and around recreation cabin tracks and commercial property.
When all safety inspections have been completed, command staff said, permittees will be allowed back into the area.
Coble also emphasized that the California Highway Patrol is not providing escorts on Highway 108 from Eagle Meadows Road to Highway 395, contrary to previous information distributed by Donnell Fire command staff.
Monday was day 20 of the Donnell Fire. It broke out Aug. 1 and two weeks ago it blew up and destroyed more than 50 cabins, homes and commercial buildings, including the main lodge at Dardanelle Resort that dated to the 1920s.
As of Monday morning, the Donnell Fire had burned more than 49 square miles in and above the Middle Fork Stanislaus River watershed. Command staff estimated the blaze was 51 percent contained.
Crews were focusing on the northwest side of the fire near Spicer Reservoir, and on the fire’s northeast flanks as it burns up into Disaster Creek and Boulder Creek drainages in Alpine County. According to command staff, aircraft will continue to support firefighting efforts in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness.
At Kennedy Meadows, Bloom said pretty much every aspect of the resort and pack station is open.
“Trail rides, pack trips, cabins, the store, the saloon, Deadman and Baker campgrounds, the restaurant,” Bloom said.
Bloom said 18 of his staff stayed during the Donnell Fire to work with Cal Fire and Tuolumne County Fire personnel to protect the resort and pack station, which traces its roots as a gateway to the high Central Sierra back more than a century.
They set hose lays and ran sprinklers at individual cabins and other structures, wrapped at least one of the oldest cabins in silver, reflective material to keep it from burning if the fire got close, cleared out underbrush and other fuels and remained vigilant through the two weeks the resort was threatened.
To keep the fire on the north side of Highway 108, and prevent it from crossing to the south side near the resort, firefighters used trucks and hoses to douse trees and shrubs and rocks next to the road with red retardant. As of Monday morning, there was fading retardant 10 feet to 20 feet up in the trees along the highway from just west of Kennedy Meadows Road to at least a quarter-mile farther up the road.
Back to basics
“That was important,” Bloom said. “To keep it north of 108. The Forest Service did a great job. They basically steered the fire around here.”
All the precautions worked. Kennedy Meadows was open with 35 employees — including servers, bartenders, cabin cleaners, cowboys, wranglers and packers — on site Monday. Wranglers had a score of horses saddled up and ready to ride before 9 a.m.
“Some people are still cancelling reservations because of smoke,” Bloom said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there. The Emigrant Wilderness is open now. People can come up here to start their backpacking trips. All the trails out of Kennedy Meadows are open.”
Phones were an issue at Kennedy Meadows on Monday. Bloom said AT&T is working on restoring normal phone service to the resort and pack station.
Bloom said he’s glad to be back open for business, and he’s grateful for all the firefighters and staff who helped keep the fire out of Kennedy Meadows.
Farther south, the Ferguson Fire that resulted in two firefighter fatalities, 19 firefighter injuries, destroyed 10 structures, burned more than 150 square miles and kept Yosemite Valley closed to the public more than a week, was declared 100 percent contained Sunday morning.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.