Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Whitney Portal Fire Drama 7/14/09

Before I forget I really must post about this last Mt. Whitney story from our trip.

I do have some photos that I need to upload, but this is the gist.

We spent the night at Whitney Portal Campground to help some with acclimatization and because it's beautiful and sometimes I like to go up to the store to say hello to Earline and Doug Sr.

Because we wanted to get a really early start the next day I decided to forgot my store visit till when we got back from our trip, so having already eaten dinner down at Lone Pine we put stuff in the bear locker, cleaned the truck out of scented items, put the tent up and settled down to get some rest while it was still light.

After the sun went down, I was half asleep when I heard sirens. Now I live in a city, so while still asleep I convinced myself that it was several blocks away and nothing to worry about, but then a voice in my head chimed in going: "Hello? You are at Whitney Portal. There is no "several blocks away" there is one road. Period." I wake up and peer out the tent since we haven't put the rain fly on. I see flashing lights out at the road (we're on a small access road back to our campsite.) Then we see another set of lights up on the other access road. Uh oh.

Terri who is starting to wake up innocently asks: think I should put a shirt on? I reply: Umm yeah. That's starting to sound like a Good Idea.

Less than a minute later we can now make out a flashlight moving from camp to camp. Uh oh again. This is starting to resemble watching something on TV and the person comes out of the TV to talk to you. - I hate it when that happens.

The flashlight approaches. We say hello to the flashlight and ask what's going on. Now a sad commentary on the state of things is that I'm explecting Flashlight to tell me that a prowler is on the loose (In the wilderness? Oh please).

Flashlight says "[his name] Highway Patrol. We have a fire just down the hill and you need to pack up and evacute." Terri asks if we have time to pack everything up and Flashlight says yes. I ask where it is and he says it's just East of the creek.

We start to pack stuff up and Flashlight moves on. We pack for about 5 minutes and the tension in the air noticibly increases (sirens are getting numerous and loud, people are starting to shout), we start to hurry as we can now make out where the fire is. Terri who hasn't been through a fire before is starting to stress some, but is holding it together. We get everything stuffed in the truck and we have a brief disagreement about my taking a moment to close the bear locker. There is stuff in there (trash) a bear shouldn't have, so I ignore her entreaties for a moment. I have told her that I'm pretty good in an emergency and she is resolutely remaining unconvinced. "You're not good. you're terrible in an emergency. We need to go." (She took it back later. :)

We exit the campground and there to our right is the fire with a couple of trees a blaze and being doused with water. We pull over and watch for a little while and I take some mostly unusable video and trade stories with the other folks in the campground. This is all turning out not to be the typical restful Whitney Portal experience. The fire subsides and comes back and subsides again. A whole bunch of fire equipment is arriving and you can hear more coming in. For what appears to be a relatively small fire this is a Very Big Deal. Mostly because the area has houses. If it was in the wilderness area it would have not been treated this way.

After a while it becomes clear that this will go on for a while and all these people are going to be looking for hotel rooms and the thought of a bed is sounding really good right now, so we head down to Lone Pine. Neither Terri or I has been an evacuee before so it didn't occur to us that since we were displaced that they would have found a place for us (there was a meeting hall commandeered for the purpose).

Going back down to Lone Pine we pass many fire crews coming up. Then we come to where the incoming road is blocked by a fire truck. It is at one of the lower campgrounds and it's full of Badwater Marathon vans (my blog entry on the Badwater Ultramarathon is here). I had forgotten about them. They moved the finish line down here since the road was now blocked. This also had another meaning that was slowly sinking in. On the very busy day of Tuesday, in the ever so hopping town of Lone Pine (not), every hotel room was booked. Eek. The woman at the desk found us a room in Bishop and we took it. Bishop is one hour away. As we drove up we were still being passed by fire crews coming in the other direction.

The next morning I called the Whitney visitor's center to see if the road was open. It had opened at 7am, which is a huge bummer for the day climbers who need to start around 2 or 3 am to finish in one day.

We drove back to our abandoned campsite and cleaned out the trash in the bear locker and found a couple of small forgotten items including a great flat Victorinox knife set that is so small I lose repeatedly and then find again months later.

We then looked at where the fire had been. Six trees had been chopped down and several others charred. While it was a small fire, it was a sobering thing to realize that our campsite was about 500' away from it. Fortunately for all concerned, there was no wind and perfect weather.

The fact that the fire was small is a credit to the Calif Dept of Forestry. the Whitney Portal is full of connifers that just so want to burn, but really can't be allowed to in that area. Fires here can get out of control in a huge hurry so they hit fires with everything they have, hence all of last night's drama.

Cause is still under investigation. We did talk to one firefighter who said the investigator was down there right then. Now that would be a cool job. Kinda high pressure but how fascinating. I later did talk to a ranger who said that he saw a military plane in the area fire off an antiaircraft flare right about the same time.

All in all this misadventure only put us 4 hours behind schedule for hitting the trail.

When we came out of the wilderness, intermitent thunderstorms were ongoing and the firewatch crews were out. We went to the portal store for one of their delicious lunches and I find Earline monitoring the radio for fire updates. On the night of the 14th they had already left, but this was now in the middle of the day. One road access makes getting out of there in a hurry difficult (though I must say on the 14th it was pretty easy) We had an enjoyable lunch amongst the fat chipmunks and while lightning did strike close enough to hear the alarming initial cracking (as opposed to just a distant rumbling), nothing struck close enough to make us want to run though I was glad that both Terri and I were off the mountain. On the drive down, we passed a couple of the firemonitoring crews and could see a fireburning in the mountains that I think they just let burn out, but keep a careful eye on.

So all in all, not your typical Whitney trip.

1 comment:

Jennie said...

Wow! What an exciting story. Looking forward to your Whitney climb report, even though it won't have nearly as much drama. (grin)