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Guardians of the Yosemite (1961) by John W. Bingaman


Chapter VI

FOREST FIRES

June 15, 1921, I became a full-fledged park ranger. After signing the oath of office my first orders from Chief Ranger Townsley were to saddle and pack up, take rations and fire hand-tools and proceed to Big Meadows, where a forest fire was burning park timber. Ranger Merrill Miner was to go with me. We were to contact George Meyer who was living on his ranch at Big Meadow and the three of us would make up the fire crew. It was up to us to put out the fire. Ranger Miller and I arrived about noon at the fire. It looked big and sinister and appeared to be spreading rapidly. George Meyer was already there and glad to see us for he needed help. “Now,” he said, “We can really tackle this fire.” His brother Horace soon joined us and we set to work with our hand-tools, shovels and saws, building a fire line. It took three days of hard work to complete a good line and this held the fire. While on the fire line Mrs. Meyers cooked and brought us food. Some thirty acres of fine timber had burned. Now that the fire was contained the four of us had a chance to get a good night’s rest.

The fire was no doubt man-made by some careless smoker. On the afternoon of the fourth day the fire was out so we left the Meyers and returned to headquarters tired and dirty. My first job completed as a park ranger.

July 13, 1931, a forest fire started at Wawona, near the garbage pit. It went out of control and burned up the ridge to Alder Creek. Chief Ranger Townsley was in charge and ordered Ranger Adair and Ranger Reymann to get help from the crews at the logging camps as well as the local residents from Wawona. Some 1,300 acres of brush and timber had already burned. It was a fast burning fire and hard to get at due to the steep slopes which created drafts like wind tunnels. During the peak of the burning, Ranger Adair was trapped and had to jump off his horse and get down in a small creek-bed in order to save his life. The fire shifted so the smoke and flames passed over Adair’s head. He gave the horse a slap on the back and it went through safely and was found a few days later near Wawona. Ranger Adair suffered from this experience and never fully regained his health.

If you go back in Park history, the larger forest fires always happened in the fall of the year. Fall is an especially bad time as most of our fire crews and seasonal rangers have gone back to school leaving only the permanent staff for fire line service. Fall is also the driest time of the year which makes fire fighting dangerous. Shortage of man-power is also a handicap when it comes to fighting big fires. The Park has been most fortunate in not having major fires along the main highways leading into the Valley or in the South Fork Canyon from Wawona to the Big Trees. This area is considered a real

1925 Graham Dodge Truck—First Yosemite fire truck
1925 Graham Dodge Truck—First Yosemite fire truck
fire hazard. A bad fire in this area would leave scars and desolation which the Park visitors would have to pass through.

Not all forest fires are caused by lightning. Careless smokers and those who leave camp fires burning also contribute to the fire hazards. Some are known to be the work of fire-bugs and incendiary in origin. Power lines blowing down in high windstorms start fires.

In the last few years the Park Fire Department has become well organized with a fire dispatcher and fire lookouts stationed on prominent peaks where they have a wide range of vision. These lookouts with their firefinders can spot and plot the location of the first smoke and relay it to the Fire Dispatcher by phone or radio. Fire crews are then dispatched from the nearest Ranger Station with proper tools, rations and mechanical tools, such as the chain saw, trucks, and bull-dozers. Small water pumpers are also very helpful. Even the old type Indian Pack Pump has been useful many a time.

Fire schools are held regularly and it is mandatory that all new fire guards and seasonal rangers attend and learn the modern techniques of fire fighting. The wonderful help and benefits the Parks received from the Civilian Conservation Corps in forest fire suppression will long be remembered by the old-time rangers.

1948 was considered a very dry year with many forest fires on the outside bordering the Park. The early part of September was smoky all over the Park, visibility was very poor and it was difficult for the Fire Lookouts to get any readings. On September 10th, I was out early to feed the saddle and pack stock. My station, Mather Ranger Station was headquarters for the northwest section of the Park. Visibility was poor that morning and I had a premonition that there’d be trouble as I could smell smoke and knew there must be a fire somewhere in the area. I called the Fire Dispatcher in the Valley and asked if there were any fires reported nearby, for the smell of smoke was strong, but I couldn’t see in what direction it came from. He said the Lookouts hadn’t reported any fires but for me to be on the alert. About that time Ranger Broyles came up to the Station to start his daily patrol. I said, “Rod, better not take that ride today as I feel that we may be fighting a fire before long.”

At 10:15 a.m. the report came through. A lookout had discovered a fire in Pate Valley, approximately two miles down-stream from the Pate Valley Trail Camp, where the canyon is 4,000 feet deep. The prevailing wind in that area is usually up canyon which kept the smoke at first from rising high enough to be visible to the lookouts. We found out later that this fire originated the day before and was man caused.

I had two rangers available, Walquist and Broyles. They were dispatched as soon as they could pack, collect rations and equipment. They took the Rancheria Trail to the top of the canyon. I’d given them one of our shortwave radio sets with instructions to set it up somewhere near the top of the canyon in a safe place. More help would join them as soon as we could get them there. A few men from Mather Recreation Camp were recruited and the first truck load arrived from the Valley soon after noon. They continued up the trail to where the rangers had set up camp. The fire had spread and made a big run up the side of the north canyon burning 2,000 acres that first day.

Homer Robinson, Park Fire Chief, arrived and took command. He planned for a large spreading fire and began sending crews into Pate Valley as well as up Rancheria Mountain. Two City of San Francisco boats standing by at the Hetch Hetchy Dam were ordered to transport crews to the head of the reservoir which was five miles distant. From there the fire crews proceeded on foot another five miles up a steep mountain trail. Fire camp was made at what was called Hat Creek. Food and sleeping bags had to be packed so extra packers and animals were hired to do this job.

A fire camp headquarters was established at Hetch Hetchy where time keeping and communications were set up and the fire crews checked in and out at fire headquarters. Supplies and tools were also checked through from here. Pack trains were sent to the head of the Reservoir to pack equipment up to the Hat Creek Camp. The boats carried everything from the Dam to the relay point which was named “Omaha Beach.” My job was supply and communication and time keeper at the Hetch Hetchy Camp. Experienced help from Region Four, and other Parks were brought in to assist in directing the fire crews. Martha, assisted by Mrs. Walquist, handled the telephone connections at Mather Ranger Station.

Our old radios worked fine part of the time and we were able to get messages through to the fire camps at Rancheria, Piute Creek and Pate Valley. The fire could not be contained for it would jump the fire lines in the strong gusty winds. Each day new lines had to be built. Fire Boss Thede on the west side was having a tough time and his crew was worn out.

Mr. John Coffman the Chief Forester from Washington, D.C., came on the job and made a complete circle around the fire line, by foot. This was a grueling trip but he insisted on seeing conditions at first-hand.

After several big blow ups and much fire line lost, it was decided by the fire boss to back-fire beginning at Rancheria Trail from the reservoir, to the top of the mountain at Hat Creek. It was a big brushy area and would not destroy too much big timber. Back-firing has to be done with great care and at the right time in order to be successful. The back-fire, plus the help of better weather conditions, finally brought the fire under control.

During the peak of the fire operation we had four hundred and forty seven men on the job. Eight fire camps were established and put into operation. The fire had burned over 11,840 acres and the timber loss was heavy. This was the largest forest fire in the history of the Park. High winds and low humidity increased the difficulties encountered by the fire fighters. At times the fire camps were cut off from their source of supply which complicated matters. The fire burned for three weeks before it was finally controlled.

As a result of this disastrous fire many new plans and recommendations were made to prevent a similar occurrence. The rangers called particular attention to the blind spots in this area where the fire first started. I made a recommendation for establishing a Lookout Station in the vicinity of Smith Peak. This would bring under observation a large area that couldn’t be seen directly from our present lookouts.

The report of the Board of Review for this recommended an added Lookout Station and better radio equipment for the Park. Trail Crews, Ranger Stations and Patrol Cars, were all to be equipped with radios as soon as possible. Better telephone connections to the Out Posts were also recommended. It was generally agreed that had the Trail Crew working in Pate Valley been equipped with radio and better detection from the Lookout Stations, the story of this fire might have been quite different.

In closing this chapter I might add, that through the years of the past century white men struggled with forest fire problems. Records show there have been many fires that ravished the mountain sides which cost millions of dollars in valuable timber as well as tremendous suppression costs. The Indians used to set fires to clear out the underbrush so it was made easier for their hunting.

Who knows? They may have had the answer.


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