Walking through a train yard surrounded by burned trees and ash, Greg Haywood pats the side of a steam locomotive with pride and relief.
“This is Max’s gal, ol’ No. 10,” says the locomotive engineer.
Haywood is talking about Max Stauffer, whose parents immigrated from Switzerland more than 50 years ago to start Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, now within the boundary of a large wildfire threatening communities just south of Yosemite National Park. Stauffer ran the family business for decades. He died of cancer in March.
It means a lot to Haywood to see Stauffer’s favorite locomotive unscathed on Saturday. “This is the flagship right here. This is what built this place.”
This is the flagship right here. This is what built this place.
Haywood and around a dozen other railroad employees were on the front lines Tuesday afternoon as the wildfire ignited, called the Railroad Fire because of its proximity to the business. Employees there spotted a plume of smoke across Highway 41 shortly before the 12:30 p.m. train ride, says manager Shane Blackwell, who rushed up the hill to try and find the source of the blaze.
A home on that mountainside, along with at least five other homes closer to the railroad, have been destroyed by the fire. An orange sun visible through smoky skies Saturday illuminated the little that remains around those destroyed homes, including a scorched apple orchard and the concrete crypt of a pioneer woman who died in 1945.
Blackwell says within about 15 minutes of spotting smoke, the fire reached the highway and embers flew across the road, igniting at least half a dozen small fires on railroad property.
“It created its own wind,” Blackwell says. “It was just pulling oxygen.”
Around a dozen employees working Tuesday were able to extinguish the spot fires using a water truck, fire hoses and fire equipment owned by the railroad. Blackwell says he also filled a Caltrans water truck twice for a state employee who was working alongside railroad employees to extinguish the blaze before firefighters arrived. They were later told to evacuate.
“That day we kind of said goodbyes to our place and to each other – we didn’t know that it would be here,” Blackwell says. “There’s just so much fuel in the area.”
The following evening, on Wednesday, the wildfire burned an old locomotive that wasn’t being used, along with a passenger car, snowplow, side dump car and refrigerator car that were attached to it, and more than 200 wooden railroad ties.
“Some pieces of history can’t be replaced,” Blackwell says of equipment once used to transport lumber around the turn of the century.
The 1928 steam locomotive used to give most train rides, No. 10, was unharmed, along seven other passenger cars, two other locomotives, and the railroad’s buildings. It’s a relief to Blackwell, but he knows danger is still at their doorstep.
“There’s still a ton of fuel below here,” he says, “and being on the uphill side of the fire is a lot worse. All it would take is sparks or embers to fly.”
The Railroad Fire was just 10 percent contained Saturday afternoon and had engulfed more than 5,400 acres. It was mostly growing east, toward Big Sandy and Sugar Pine. Flames crossed the northwest boundary of Nelder Grove on Friday, but fire officials said the blaze isn’t expected to reach the dozens of ancient giant sequoias growing there.
The railroad, which normally operates into October and currently employs around 25 people, should be able to reopen quickly once firefighters say it’s safe for visitors to return.
It’s been a hard year for the railroad, including the death of not only Stauffer, but also his mother. Then there were the heavy winter rains that washed out sections of the train tracks.
“Floods in the winter,” Blackwell says, “fire in the summer.”
But Blackwell is trying to stay positive.
“In a couple years this forest is going to be, because of this fire, more lush than it’s ever been,” he says. “It’s a nature reset.”
The employees are eager to keep the railroad going. They love seeing the joy that their historic train rides bring families.
“Max and his family, they had a way of instilling in you the love of what they did,” Haywood says, “and they passed it on. … It’s a generational thing that’s being passed down, and I want this here for generations to come. We all do.”
Information about the wildfire, as of Saturday afternoon:
Location: Fish Camp area, south of Yosemite National Park. Fire primarily growing east, toward Big Sandy and Sugar Pine.
Acres burned: 5,414
Containment: 10 percent
Closures: Highway 41 both directions from south of Wawona in Yosemite to Cedar Valley Drive. Summerdale, Big Sandy and Nelder Grove campgrounds in Sierra National Forest. Redwood, Paradise Springs, and Calvin Crest camps.
Evacuations: Sky Ranch Road on evacuation advisory. Fish Camp and Sugar Pine residents remain evacuated.
Fire personnel: 590