Subscribe

Off limits: National forest fire closures hit just as Californians need nature most

Federal and state properties off-limits to the public under fire-related emergency closures:

National Forests:

Modoc National Forest

Klamath National Forest

Plumas National Forest

Tahoe National Forest

Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit

Shasta-Trinity National Forest

Lassen National Forest

Six Rivers National Forest

Mendocino National Forest

El Dorado National Forest (closed Aug. 17 under separate order)

California Department of Fish and Wildlife Lands:

Antelope Valley Wildlife Area (Sierra County)

Butte Creek House Ecological Reserve (Butte County)

Coon Hollow Wildlife Area (Butte County)

Crocker Meadows Wildlife Area (Plumas County)

Kinsman Flat Wildlife Area (Madera County)

Smithneck Creek Wildlife Area (Sierra County)

Warner Valley Wildlife Area (Plumas County)

A wildfire was raging in one of the national forests last year when a helicopter pilot equipped with a huge water bucket saw a desperate civilian on the ground running, frantically trying to thread a path to safety.

Thinking fast, the pilot whisked the person out of harm’s way in the giant water scooper, a tool intended for use in battling the blaze.

Anthony Scardina, deputy regional forester with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region, told reporters the story Friday in an effort to explain why every national forest in the northern half of California — 10 in all, including one that was already closed — will be temporarily off-limits to public. The closure affects even forests that are not burning.

The new closures begin at midnight Sunday and extending at least through the Labor Day holiday, when conditions will be re-evaluated.

Map showing nine Northern California national forests closed to the public starting on Monday, Aug. 23, under an emergency fire-related order from the U.S. Forest Service.  (USFS)
Map showing nine Northern California national forests closed to the public starting on Monday, Aug. 23, under an emergency fire-related order from the U.S. Forest Service. (USFS)

The closures hit just before Labor Day weekend, a time when many Californians head out to the forests to hunt, fish, commune with nature and recharge spiritual batteries.

For someone like Charlie Schneider, a Petaluma cyclist and angler, the emergency closure is just one more of the many challenges confronting California residents in a difficult time, though not entirely surprising.

Schneider, 38, has spent lots of time fishing in national forests but knows the drought means most streams are low and, much of the time, too warm for fish to readily survive catch and release snagging.

He also knows that while some users are very conscientious about camp stoves and other potential fire starts, “not all users are as careful, and although it’s certainly disappointing to have the forests closed, we can see the need. It’s something I wouldn’t want to see every year, of course.”

“I think with the pandemic, too — especially in Sonoma County here, it seems like our parks were shut down longer than everywhere else — if you’re an outdoor lover, between the pandemic and smoke and now this, its hard to know where to go. It’s tough.”

So far, more than 1.4 million acres of California’s drought-parched landscape already have burned this year, and it’s almost certain to get worse.

About half of the area burned so far has been in the Dixie fire — a more than 700,000-acre behemoth spread across that started over a month ago in the Plumas National Forest and is now the single-largest wildfire in recorded state history.

It was just one of 14 major wildfires currently tearing through California, all but two of them in the northern realms, burning mostly in remote, mountainous, forests and wooded areas where tree canopies carry the flames extended distances.

Anyone paying attention has seen images of the alarming fire behavior being produced: shockingly high flame lengths, pyrocumulous clouds that billow and soar into the atmosphere, whipping fire whirls that strike terror in the heart.

They have also seen communities decimated — Greenville and Grizzly Flats, most especially. And they’ve tracked the fate of beloved landmarks, camp sites and trails.

That’s why the Forest Service announced the emergency closure late Thursday, saying it was prompted by “extreme fire conditions throughout northern California and strained firefighting resources throughout the country.”

It’s the second consecutive year the federal agency has taken such action after closing all 18 national forests in California in Sept. of 2020, amid explosive growth in wildfires that already were burning.

Map of U.S. National Forests in California. The Forest Service will temporarily close nine of the forests in northern California due to ongoing wildfires and fire risks beginning Aug. 22, 2021 through Labor Day weekend. The El Dorado National Forest was closed Aug. 17 due to the Caldor fire.
Map of U.S. National Forests in California. The Forest Service will temporarily close nine of the forests in northern California due to ongoing wildfires and fire risks beginning Aug. 22, 2021 through Labor Day weekend. The El Dorado National Forest was closed Aug. 17 due to the Caldor fire.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife followed this year’s emergency closure with one of its own, affecting seven wildlife areas and reserves that adjoin national forests. They will be closed from midnight Sunday through Labor Day.

“Fires are running very quickly due to the drought conditions, dry fuels, and winds,” Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien, newly appointed head of the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region, said in a news release. “This makes initial attack and containment very difficult and is even more challenging with strained resources who are battling more than 100 large fires across the country.

“We do not take this decision lightly and understand how this impacts people who enjoy recreating on the National Forests. These temporary closures are necessary to ensure public and firefighter safety, as well as reduce the potential for new fire starts.”

Federal and state properties off-limits to the public under fire-related emergency closures:

National Forests:

Modoc National Forest

Klamath National Forest

Plumas National Forest

Tahoe National Forest

Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit

Shasta-Trinity National Forest

Lassen National Forest

Six Rivers National Forest

Mendocino National Forest

El Dorado National Forest (closed Aug. 17 under separate order)

California Department of Fish and Wildlife Lands:

Antelope Valley Wildlife Area (Sierra County)

Butte Creek House Ecological Reserve (Butte County)

Coon Hollow Wildlife Area (Butte County)

Crocker Meadows Wildlife Area (Plumas County)

Kinsman Flat Wildlife Area (Madera County)

Smithneck Creek Wildlife Area (Sierra County)

Warner Valley Wildlife Area (Plumas County)

The federal order carries fines up to $5,000 for individual violations and up to $10,00 for organizations. It covers nine national forests, including the nearby Mendocino National Forest and the highly popular Lake Tahoe area. The El Dorado National Forest, the southernmost forest affected, was closed earlier this week because of the week-old Caldor fire, which remained completely uncontrolled Friday afternoon.

In all, a total of 11.4 million acres of public forest lands are now off limits for recreation, though access is still allowed for specified, exempted uses, including firefighting; timber harvesting or livestock grazing; or access to homes or property.

Scardina, with the Forest Service, acknowledged the closure “have impacts on people in a large range of ways,” including those who may have hoped to see through late-summer trips, Labor Day outings and opening weeks of deer hunting season in some areas.

But he and Brian Rhodes, deputy director for fire and aviation management within the region, depicted a dire situation that required extreme action.

Meteorological predictions suggest the potential for major fire activity into late fall, while extended fire seasons and major fires across the west mean that fire resources that in the past would have circulated from region to region through the last half of the year are now committed to different regions during overlapping seasons, limiting available firefighting resources.

“It’s a sign of the type of fire behavior combined with the strained resources, where we have concerns about fire safety, and we look at those examples of last year and feel the need to protect people until we feel those conditions change a little bit and we feel those resources become available,” Scardina said.

Bow hunters will be among those most affected by the national forest closure, which comes during the few weeks they have exclusive access to deer before rifle hunters are allowed to begin their season.

At the West Coast Archery Shop in Petaluma, store clerk Rudy Sandoval noted that COVID, in keeping people home, had actually driven up the popularity of archery substantially. It was already a growing sport, but once folks discovered they could set up targets at home for the family, more and more people got involved, he said.

Many recreational hunters could probably alter their plans, finding somewhere else or another time to hunt. But “it’s gotta be a bummer for people who rely on the use of public land because some people who live in those more remote areas financially depend on that protein,” he said.

Devin O’Dea grew up in Novato and is California/Nevada Chapter Coordinator of the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.

Now a San Diego resident, he seemed less accepting of the closure of areas where no fire was currently burning.

He said the timing was just difficult, coinciding with big game hunting season and with fishing seasons that would normally draw lots of folks into the forests, many of whom would have set vacation time aside with friends and/or family. Some might also have hunting permits for which they waited in line for years and for which they have spent the rest of the year scouting good areas, laying plans and setting up game cameras.

He said people understand how difficult it is to manage disaster situations, when there’s a wildfire and people’s live and property are at risk. But “everyone does own these lands,” and it’s frustrating for those who lose out because of preemptive closure, he said.

“We may need more resources in this changing climates — both proactive resources and mitigation — and its actual ability to fight the fire and the fire response teams that are able to be out there.”

Sebastopol artist Dennis Bolt said it’s starting to feel like the mountains are just unsafe.

After growing up in Sonoma County, he’s watched the region become plagued by fire over the past five years or so, and now finds his vacation spots have become fire zones, as well.

This week, he and his family watched the Caldor fire roar to life, starting about 2 miles from Leoni Meadows Camp and Retreat Center in Grizzly Flats, where they had gone for eight years to meet up with cousins and other relatives.

They have missed the past three summers because of other travel and COVID, but he and his wife promised the kids they would go next year, only to watch in horror as the path of the fire went right through the property.

“Our youngest, who really wanted to go back this coming year, was kind of desolate about it,” Bolt said.

Miraculously, much of the camp came through undamaged, but it won’t be the same, he said.

“It feels like wildfire was not a huge issue until five years ago, 10 years ago, and now every summer, it is an issue,” Bolt said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette