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September 1, 2014

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Mount Charleston on the mend

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Steve Marcus

James Hurja, a United States Forest Service soil scientist and burn response coordinator for Mount Charleston; Randy Swick, Spring Mountains National Recreation Area manager, and Ron Bollier, USFS fire management officer, look over burned juniper and pinyon pine trees near Harris Springs Road on Tuesday, May 27, 2014, on Mount Charleston. The mountain is showing signs of recovery about one year after the Carpenter 1 Fire that scorched nearly 28,000 acres in 2013.

Mount Charleston Fire: One Year Later

Burned Joshua trees are shown in an area near Harris Springs Road and Kyle Canyon Road on Mt. Charleston Tuesday, May 27, 2014. The mountain is showing signs of recovery, about one year after the Carpenter 1 Fire that scorched almost 28,000 acres in 2013. Launch slideshow »

Climate Change and Mt. Charleston

BLM fire management officer Mike Haydon speaks during a news conference to highlight the dangers of climate change and its effects on the Spring Mountains Tuesday, June 24, 2014. Launch slideshow »

Mount Charleston Fire - Damage

Hydrologist Brian Anderson and soil scientist Brad Rust, both from the U.S. Forest Service, speak to members of the media in a burned area near Cathedral Rock Wednesday, July 24, 2013 as a result of the recent fire on Mount Charleston. Launch slideshow »

Returning to Mount Charleston

A Resort at Mount Charleston sign board sends a welcome to visitors Thursday, July 18, 2013. The mountain is expected to reopen to the public on Friday. Launch slideshow »

It started with a lightning strike in Carpenter Canyon, on the Pahrump side of the Spring Mountains, at 3 p.m. July 1, 2013.

A fire sparked in the dense, virtually inaccessible wilderness. Firefighters were called in but had a hard time cornering the flames.

On July 4, the fire crested the ridge. The mountain’s more than 500 residents needed to evacuate.

The fire covered 30 square miles at one point, and residents waited and worried for a week, while more than 800 firefighters battled the blaze.

The fire was subdued, but then a heavy monsoon season arrived, flooding areas of the mountain, stripping away the soil and washing trees, rocks and other debris into the valleys below.

It has been a year since the Carpenter 1 Fire scarred nearly 28,000 acres of the Spring Mountains and licked at the doorsteps of Kyle Canyon residents. What has become of the mountain and the people who call it home?

Harris Canyon

The marks of the fire are apparent driving up Kyle Canyon Road, the hillside dotted with charred Joshua trees. Just beyond the sign announcing the Spring Mountains, new, green yucca plants are coming up beneath burnt ones, enjoying the temporary shade afforded by their dead ancestors. Cheat grass, which moves in quickly after a wildfire, fills in the gaps.

Nature is running its course. The hardiest, quickest-growing plants already are coming back.

“Nature is fire adaptive,” said Randy Swick, Spring Mountains area manager for the U.S. Forest Service. “It waits for an event to happen, and then it repopulates and revegetates the area.”

That doesn’t mean nature can’t use a hand here or there. In late summer 2013, the forest service rounded up volunteers to spread seeds of native plants in fire-scarred areas to speed up the regrowth.

Nearby, the access point to Harris Springs Road is chained off, reserved for residents, workers, U.S. Forest Service crews and other government staff. “No Entry: Burned area closed for human safety and resource protection,” the sign reads.

About 90 percent of Harris Canyon burned, according to the Forest Service. When the fire started, moisture levels in the plants were at all-time lows, said Ron Bollier, the U.S. Forest Service fire manager for the area.

Many of the Harris Canyon Joshua trees, which have a low fire tolerance, no longer resemble gray fingers with tufted green tips. The ones touched by fire are charred, their leaves creamy white, like chocolate waffle cones holding scoops of vanilla ice cream.

In a patch of charred pinyon and juniper pines along the Harris wash, forest service personnel spot ATV tracks and the remnants of a campfire, exactly what they are trying to avoid by blocking off public access.

“This area is vulnerable now, and human and ATV traffic will only retard the recovery,” Swick said.

On the north side of the road, the landscape is ravaged. There is no underbrush and the trees are skeletons, barren of foliage with charred bark peeling. Flooding after the fire ripped weakened trees out and finished off some of the vegetation left standing by the fire.

The wildflowers — orange globemallow, yellow desert marigolds and white cryptanthas — are sprouting reminders of the coming rebirth of the forest. The side of the road spared by the fire has a few wildflowers but not nearly as many as the rows of orange and green plants peppering the burnt side.

Fire, part of nature’s natural cycle, clears the way for certain plant species to return.

Kyle Canyon and Cathedral Rock Picnic Area

Bulldozers and front loaders remain at the Cathedral Rock Picnic Area, clearing debris carried by post-fire flooding. Piles of ash and soot surround the restrooms.

Some trees, burnt into black coals, have been sawed into stumps and lie strewn across the hillside above the campground, resting on beds of straw.

After the fire, the forest service dropped 800 tons of straw on 400 acres of burned land. The straw helps retain soil moisture, improving water infiltration and limiting erosion. The straw, inspected for invasive species before it’s dropped, contains grass seed to help stabilize the soil.

The post-fire work to lay straw, stabilize roads and restore access to public areas has cost $1.3 million so far, according to Jim Hurja, a Forest Service soil scientist and burn response coordinator for Mount Charleston. A bridge near the Spring Mountains visitor center that was destroyed in the floods still needs to be rebuilt.

Above the campground, a grove of aspen in an avalanche chute sits charred. Its root system is still alive, though, and sends up new, green stems.

The popular Cathedral Rock trail is closed until Forest Service workers can check it for debris and stability. The South Loop and Griffith trail also are closed and probably will be for some time. Burned trees fell across the trails, making navigation difficult. The fire and floods left the soil unstable, and rocks and other debris could come tumbling down.

Fires are measured by intensity, how long they burn, their effect on vegetation and soil, and how much damage they do to organic matter in their way. Most of the Carpenter 1 fire was moderate in severity, Hurja said, burning shrubs, trees, fallen leaves and needles, but mostly sparing soil and the fine root systems of plants, needed for water uptake.

Other areas of the Spring Mountains where fire has struck predict how recovery from the Carpenter 1 fire could go. On a mountainside that burned 10 years ago in the Robbers Fire, sparked by a truck with its brakes on fire, underbrush, grass and saplings have returned.

It typically takes five to seven years for smaller plants and shrubs to come back, Hurja said, and two to three decades before mature trees start filling in the area.

The North Loop trail is open, and hikers still can summit Mount Charleston.

Animals and residents

The area from the peak of Mount Charleston to the peak of Mount Griffith is home to the Mount Charleston Blue Butterfly, listed as endangered in October, the result of a long classification process unaffected by the fire. It will be some time before naturalists know what, if any, impact the fire had on the butterfly population. It’s possible the fire damaged eggs or prevented adults from laying eggs last summer.

The forest service says other animal populations, such as the palmer’s chipmunk, remain stable.

Garry Tomashowski, of Mount Charleston Realty, said the fire has not been much of a deterrent, except for vacant homes that flooded.

“I think fire and the other impacts of nature are something people accept when they choose to live up here,” Tomashowski said. “It’s expected that when you are in the forest that maybe you’ll have some incidents. The people are informed and live there regardless.”

This was the first time in recent history that fire came so close to the main residential communities in Kyle Canyon.

“The fire really kept the pine needles and weeds in check for this season,” said Chuck McBride, 88, a 34-year resident of the Rainbow Subdivision. “The trees across the road are still there, and they block out the burned parts. So, my view is looking fine.”

Prospect Springs Ranch

The morning of July 10, Barry Becker got the call. Despite firefighters’ efforts, the blaze had turned with the wind toward Prospect Springs Ranch and burned five buildings. They would be the only residential buildings damaged by the fire.

A lodge, cabin, bathroom and two storage facilities burned, but the original ranch cabin, built in the 1800s, survived. Becker said firefighters battled furiously, watering areas around the ranch and cutting limbs off trees to impede the spread.

“The firefighters did an amazing job of trying to protect us,” Becker said. “But when wind shifted, it blew the fire right on us.”

Becker used a backhoe to fell trees, and workers did their best to blockade the property from the wildfire, but to no avail. The floods that came later dumped mounds of ash, soil, rocks and plant matter into the pond, which had to be excavated, and now is restocked with catfish and rainbow trout.

The buildings have not been rebuilt, but Becker says he eventually will replace the facilities.

“This was a pretty nice little forest retreat, and now the forest is a bunch of black tree stumps,” he said. “The fire just swept across us, and the flood washed away the topsoil. It will take five years or so for the bushes and underbrush to come back. We’ll start planting on the property too, so we have some greenery.”

Trout Canyon

It was Aug. 20, and Dan Tarnowski of the Nevada Rural Water Association stood triumphant before Trout Canyon’s few dozen residents. The association had coordinated an effort to repair an almost three-mile water line to a spring that served as the community’s only water source. The line, made from World War II-era munitions canisters, was damaged in the fire, and the Las Vegas Valley Water Authority had patched it for $35,000.

“We were extremely lucky, and the firefighters were amazingly heroic,” resident Bob McCormick said. “The fire damage came up within feet of the back of the community, and it could have totally destroyed it without their heroic efforts of turning the fire. The heat from the fire warped and damaged the line.”

As Tarnowski told residents that water was about to be restored to their homes, heavy rains started. The area flooded, and with the soil already loose from the fire, the wave riding down the mountain washed away the repaired pipeline.

A year later, residents still are without a long-term solution. For now, they use one resident’s well to fill tanks on their properties. It is a laborious chore, and the water must be boiled before being consumed.

“Right now, we are able to function using the tanks on our property and hauling from the well, but it’s onerous and difficult to maintain,” McCormick said.

There are eight year-round households in the community and 25 homes total. They put together $30,000 for an engineering study but still need to scrounge up $45,000 for an environmental impact study. They have set up a website, troutcanyonwater.com, to chronicle the ordeal and take donations.

The residents also established the Trout Canyon Land and Water Users Association, a nonprofit organization, so they can apply for federal grants. McCormick, who heads the association, says no groundwater rights are available, and the most efficient remedy is a new line going to the spring.

“Right now, we need more money to move forward,” McCormick said. “We are desperate, and we have no solution for it. We are at an impasse at the moment, and in some ways, hoping for an angel benefactor.”

At least four families have been displaced from their homes, McCormick said, unable to pay for tanks for their properties. A rough estimate for the cost of rebuilding the line is $3 million.

The community is sticking it out.

“We have overwhelming support from landowners,” McCormick said. “There are a few holdouts, but I’d say 95 percent of the community supports going forward and trying to resolve the problem.”

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