Star Fire races out of control in wilderness
TAHOE CITY – More than 8,000 acres have been consumed by wildfire in the steep ravines of the Middle Fork of the American River 18 miles west of Lake Tahoe, spreading smoke and ash across the basin and as far as Pyramid Lake as it moves to the east.
Fire officials said the fire is still growing and moving northeast.
Hot temperatures, strong afternoon winds, an abundance of fuels and steep terrain are making the Star Fire tough to reign in.
As of 11 a.m. Wednesday morning 10 percent of the 8,000-acre blaze was contained.
On the West Shore, the 91-acre Bear Fire is burning six miles west of Sugar Pine Point State Park in the Tahoe National Forest.
According to U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Lisa Donohoo, the Star Fire began early Sunday morning six miles southwest of French Meadows Reservoir. Hot air rising out of the foothills in the afternoon creates daily winds up the river canyon. Donohoo said there was some extreme fire behavior Sunday.
“You pretty much expect the most fire behavior in the afternoons with the up-canyon winds and the high temperature,” she said. “When those coincide that’s usually when you’ll get your most severe fire behavior. That’s when it will usually make a run.”
The U.S. Forest Service is heading the effort against the Star Fire. Because of the increase in personnel, the fire camp has been moved from Big Meadows to French Meadows.
Eight injuries have been reported so far, the most severe being a broken arm. One firefighter had to be airlifted out of the area after going into anaphylactic shock due to a bee sting. A nonfunctioning Red Star Mine structure has been damaged by the fire along with likely impact to the Middle Fork of the American River watershed and spotted owl and goshawk habitat. The Star Fire has cost an estimated $1 million thus far.
Though temperatures are expected to drop in the next couple of days, winds are expected to increase, not an auspicious sign for firefighters.
All major roads going into the French Meadows Basin have been closed to public traffic. Forest Service campgrounds at French Meadows and Hellhole have been evacuated as a precautionary measure, and fire mountain roads have been closed.
The fire began on the El Dorado National Forest side of the Middle Fork of the American River but quickly spotted to the north side, which is part of the Tahoe National Forest. The cause of the fire is unknown at this point.
Fifty-five crews and more than 2,000 people are battling the blaze, along with 17 engines, 11 bulldozers, 17 water tenders, 13 helicopters and five air tankers. The number of engines and air tankers available to the Star Fire both dropped Tuesday after resources were diverted to the Weaverville fire, said Dana Howlett, a spokesperson for the El Dorado Forest Service.
Twenty-six large fires were burning on more than 200,000 acres Tuesday across the Western states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
The Star Fire was not the only fire sparked Sunday. The Bear Fire began Sunday afternoon around 2 p.m. near Bear Lake and Barker Pass. It is named the Bear Fire because initially it was believed to be closer to Bear Lake than Long Lake.
As of Tuesday evening the fire had burned 91 acres with 75 percent containment, down from initial estimates of 165 acres after a field observer with a Global Positioning System device walked the fire perimeter.
Eighty personnel responded to the blaze, including 24 smokejumpers, three hand crews and one helicopter. Currently, 70 people are fighting the fire. The smokejumpers departed Tuesday morning and were relieved by the Fulton Hotshots from Sequoia National Forest. Other units included Crew 19 from the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, Crew 1 from the Truckee Ranger District on the Tahoe National Forest and the Slide Mountain Crew from the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District.
Diane Minutilli, fire information officer with the Truckee Ranger District, said humans caused the Bear Fire, though the cause is still under investigation. The North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District is assisting the Forest Service in battling the flames.
The rocky terrain where the Bear Fire is burning is making combating the blaze easier, said Minutilli.
“You can’t dig a handline as easily but you don’t need to because there’s rock there,” she said. “It makes it easier really. You don’t have to dig as much line.”
The Bear Fire had forced the closure of the McKinney-Rubicon Trail, a popular road for off-road drivers, but the trail re-opened Tuesday afternoon. However, the U.S. Forest Service requested the public not to use four-wheel drive routes in the vicinity of Long Lake, specifically the 16E75 and 16E76 roads to keep the roads free for fire vehicles to travel unobstructed.
Debby Broback, U.S. Forest Service Fire Information Officer, said the McKinney-Rubicon Trail, which is 22.5 miles long, was closed at the 03-4 intersection. That intersection is about 12 miles from an entrance to the trail at McKinney-Rubicon road, on the West Shore between Tahoma and Homewood.
Tuesday’s reports said the probability for extreme fire behavior on the Bear Fire was low.
Minutilli also reminded the public that fire restrictions are still in place. Campfires are only allowed in designated campgrounds, vehicles are restricted to forest roads only and smoking is not permitted except inside an enclosed vehicle.
“The holiday weekend has us nervous that we may break some more fires due to people not understanding fire restrictions,” she said.
Gregory Crofton and Andrew Becker contributed to this report.
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