On Thursday, August 15, 2013, a group of nine Peak Adventures’ staff, consisting of two senior trip leaders seven new staff, piled into the Peak Adventures’ van excited to begin their five day Outdoor Trip Leader Training. Their destination was Crabtree Trailhead in Emigrant Wilderness.
Emigrant Wilderness is part of the Stanislaus National Forest in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. If you look at a California map, it is south of Sacramento and northwest of Yosemite National Forest.
The landscape is beautiful. It is famous for its breath-taking views and jewel-like lakes. However, after the snow season the air becomes dry, which leads to an ever-present potential for wildfires. That means that campfires are illegal during these times. Therefore, when backpacking it is common practice to use a backpacking stove in place of a typical campfire.
This five-day training was designed to give each pair of leaders a day to lead their peers as they would their participants, while also providing a physical challenge of carrying a 40-50 pound pack across 30 miles of wilderness ranging from 6,000 to almost 10,000 feet in elevation, coupled with the emotional challenges of leading a group for the first time.
It took the group just over three hours from the trailhead (the start of the trail) to reach their first camp at Bear Lake. When they reached their intended camp there was another group already camping there. Out of respect, the leaders moved to another less-obtrusive campsite. Along the way, the group passed many fire rings (a circle of stones with ash inside). When they found a suitable place to make camp, it had a fire ring as well…and it was smoking.
The group took off their packs to take a closer look. It was obvious, this was still a fire. Everyone tore into their packs to pull out any container that would hold water and got to work. Just like the fire lines that firefighters make, they formed a line from the lake to the ashes. The ashes were so hot that when the water hit the ground, the water immediately started to boil. It quickly became clear that the fire was not contained in the ring.
There was a tree about six feet away from the ring with a direct connection back to the source. Between the tree and the ring, smoke was coming from the ground. It very quickly became clear what had happened. In dry environments (like Emigrant Wilderness, Lassen National forest, Tahoe, and Yosemite) tree roots tend to reach out like fingers from the bottom of tree, but are closer to the surface rather than deep within the ground. There are many reasons for this: one is that the tree can get water more easily, and another is simply that there is granite or some other rock below the surface that physically prevents the roots from growing down. In this case, the roots had stretched out underneath the fire ring. The sap in the roots provided additional fuel for the fire and it was able to travel from the fire ring to the tree. When the previous campers extinguished their illegal fire, they likely did not realize that it was still smoldering below the surface.
It took just over an hour of constant drenching to get the ground to finally be cool to the touch. The group decided that the fire was contained for the time, but needed to continue to be monitored to be sure that it really was out. The leaders made camp and started dinner attempting to keep perspective on the whole situation. By the morning, the ground was cold and the fire was out. The incident was reported to a ranger the next day. He informed the group that there was another fire that had started in that same way a week ago. It had burned 100,000 acres and had been extinguished a few days before the training began.
Thankfully this situation never became dangerous. Nonetheless, it was a fantastic group training opportunity and a great way to introduce the new staff to what it means to be an Outdoor Trip Leader for Peak Adventures.
The new “Peak Adventures Volunteer Wildfire Crew” is composed of Meredith Budlong, Jessica Tietjen, Nick Daher, Clint Vannasing, Ryan Armstrong, Mario Giovannoni, Jen Cavagnaro, Bundi Wilde, and David Pelz. If you see them walking around campus or you happen to be on one of their trips, be sure to give them a big smile and a high-five.