The Butte Fire, which threatened but did not harm Calaveras Big Trees State Park, provided a learning experience for Park and CBTA staff members.
When the fire first erupted 25 miles or so away, it seemed a long distance, and was watched with interest but little real concern for the Park. But by the second day, with strong winds blowing flames across the Mokulumne River and mountainous ridges, and the fire marching swiftly southward toward the Park and the entire Highway 4 corridor, all of a sudden things looked much more serious.
Most of the territory north of Highway 4 immediately came under a mandatory evacuation order. Translation: get out right now. The property south of the highway, including the historic North Grove area and most of the Park’s facilities, was placed under an “advisory evacuation.” Translation: be ready to leave on a moment’s notice. Heavy smoke and falling ash were present, and the discomfort level climbed quickly. Residents surrounding the Park began leaving, jamming the only escape route to the point that the drive to Murphys — normally about 30 minutes — took some evacuees as much as three hours.
CBTA President Paul Prescott kept in touch by phone with the staff in the Visitor Center, sensed the growing danger and directed them to grab moveable vital records and cash registers, close the Visitor Center and head for safety immediately. They all got out promptly. Meanwhile, Park Superintendent Gary Olson ordered the Park closed. Rangers checked all the parking areas and trails, cleared the campgrounds, and made sure no stragglers were left behind. Once the people were out of harm’s way, Park staff, augmented by help from other districts, immediately began doing what they could to protect the giant sequoias by clearing brush back from the base of the trees, making sure no “fire ladders” would be available to carry fire into the crowns of the rare trees if flames made it into the Park.
Meanwhile more than 4,000 firefighters were on the lines a few miles away. Scores of bulldozers cut new large firebreaks just north of the highway, and dozens or aircraft were dropping retardants all along the most active spots. That massive effort, and a brief change in wind and weather conditions, helped bring the fire under control over the next few days.
As things returned to normal fairly quickly, the Park and Visitor Center reopened, but the lessons learned by CBTA include the following:
The need for a clear procedure in such emergencies needs to be discussed, coordinated with Park staff and understood ahead of time;
All staff members of CBTA need to be fully informed of what to do before there is an emergency, how to be safe and react appropriately. Plans to make sure that is done are already under way at CBTA.
Quick action by Park staff in the emergency will have a lasting beneficial effect upon the North Grove trees in terms of fire safety. The events made clear the need for the current underbrush clearing project and a continuing need for controlled burning to reduce the impact of wildfires in the future.
For CBTA and everyone who cares for the Park, it was a learning experience. Next time we’d prefer it not be quite so scary.
By Sanders Lamont