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On the other side of the fire line
Part 1

30 July 2004

Valley Voice

Tony Biegen

On a recent Tuesday, the fourth day of a five-day backpacking trip beyond Mission Pine Basin, I looked up and saw a strange cloud.

The cloud had a dark secret that was shown by a slight brown tint to it. I pointed it out to my buddy Jim and asked him if he thought it was a cloud or smoke. He thought it was smoke too. Since we were out in the middle of nowhere I said, "Let me get my GPS out and see where that smoke is coming from." My GPS indicated that the fire was over by Cachuma Saddle, where we had come in and where my SUV was parked.

Back at our camp we watched the smoke with concern. We had a few choices. We could try to go out the way we came in, taking the chance that we might run into a fire. We could go down a long trail to Coche, which eventually comes out at Upper Oso, but we wouldn't have a car to get anywhere after that. We could hike down to the Ranger station at Bluff, but that is deeper in the wilderness.

Being trapped behind a wildfire is one of the deepest fears of hikers and backpackers in Santa Barbara's backcountry. Because of budget cuts, our Forest Service, despite its best efforts, is unable to keep all the trails open and clear. Often, backpackers are left to progress slowly, pushing aside overgrown chaparral on the only route available. The thought of a fire coming quickly behind you leaves you with a claustrophobic feeling of being trapped.

Back at the camp, the smoke dissipated, so we figured that they had the fire out. We ate dinner and went to bed, promising to get an early start on our long hike out the next morning. We got up early, and the sky was clear, so we headed out for Cachuma Saddle. About halfway back, we could see that there were new plumes of smoke coming from the same location. We realized we should have hiked out the night before. We decided that since we had gone that far, we would try to get closer and see what the situation was. The closer we got, the more smoke we saw. Finally we got to a bend in the trail near Hell's Half Acre (an appropriate name). When we turned the corner, we figured we would be able to see what was going on down the road. And there was the fire, right in front of us. It was shooting up high flames, crackling as it burned. A horrible sound. We stood there and watched it climb up the front of Cachuma Peak. It burned totally in about ten minutes. Just flying up the hillside.

A coyote came running up the road toward us, or rather, away from the fire. A mule deer bounded up a hillside. The dirt road we were on had prints from many animals, including bear and cougar, escaping the fire. The larger animals can outrun it. The smaller animals can climb into their dens and wait it out. Even insects such as the walking stick are adapted to fires, laying their eggs and covering them with earth, offering them some protection. By fire season, all the native animals are prepared for fire.

The Forest Service does controlled burns to ease the threat of larger fires but they do them in the wet season for the obvious safety reasons. According to biologist Dr. Cristina Sandoval, that well-intentioned measure kills off many of the insects and small animals that are not mature enough or prepared yet for fire. The Forest Service has little choice, though, because the lack of small fires in some areas for over 50 years makes a controlled burn during fire season impossible.

I asked Jim what he thought we should do.

"Just wait here and see what happens," he said. "If the fire burns out along the road, we could walk right through it and down and out."

As we sat there watching the flames devour more of the potrero, I noticed smoke coming over the hillside above us. I suggested that we move back to a grassy area about a quarter-mile back. After just a few minutes, the flames appeared across the whole ridge above us. So now we had flames in front of us, flames to the right, a steep grade to the left and the road behind us.

Now what do we do?