This year Central California has been plagued by extreme heat coupled with out-of-control wildfires, which in turn will change our wilderness landscaping for decades. Some of our remote areas haven’t experienced a fire for almost a century and that in turn creates our fire conditions today.
Difficult to believe that 2017 and 2018 are California’s back-to-back driest and hottest years in recorded history. Those of you like myself who live in these Sierra Nevada Mountains are having difficulties adjusting to this climate change.
For days I spent countless hours within the confinement of my home because of the thick smoke from the Ferguson Fire. Finally on Aug. 3 the morning skies cleared enough for me to venture outside and hike one of those wilderness trails that skirt across our local mountains. I chose the area south of Oakhurst which is the Thornberry Mountains.
For years this mountain with its fire roads and forgotten mining interests has been one of my favorite areas for morning conditioning hikes. With the infestation of the bark beetle and five years of drought, this pristine area has become dangerous because of the dead trees. Curiosity got the best of me, so this morning I decided to hike my old training route.
I arrived at the trailhead around 6 a.m. I decided to start by following the old fire road which leads to the highest elevation point along this mountain. Last April I struggled along this route climbing over or hiking around fallen trees, victims of five years of drought. Since then, U.S. Forest Service workers have removed and cleared a safe path along this road for their equipment in case of a fire.
The personality of the mountain has changed. The ground cover is much taller followed by increased growth of our native manzanita bushes. The loss of 98 percent of the pine and cedar trees reminds me of the lingering danger of these dead trees. Note: if the wind is blowing, do not venture into these areas, because any one of these snags could fall without warning.
Those game trails I followed in the past are now grown over with dry ground cover and fallen trees. The record high temperatures during July haven’t helped by creating an atmosphere of extremely dry conditions. Even the native wild blackberry bushes are not producing their normal quota of berries. For years I always looked forward to their sweet nectar during my long summer hikes.
Normally two hours would satisfy my morning adventure, but this morning because of the changing conditions I spent almost three hours struggling to complete the route. On the south side of this mountain an old abandoned trail sloping down toward North Fork caught my eye. I attempted to follow but only for a short distance. I had to abandon that trail because it was overgrown with manzanita bushes and obstructed by a few fallen trees. Even with these major landscaping changes, seedlings of pine and cedar trees are taking hold. To refer to that old cliché, “Time solves all problems” – it may be true.
From the appearance of Thornberry Mountain, other trails east of Oakhurst have the same restrictions. Goat Mountain above Bass Lake, Chepo Saddle and Willow Creek should be hiked with caution.
Soon these major fires will be contained and within a few months those trails that were concealed from view, are now exposed. For hikers who seek adventure, maybe these hidden trails will offer new challenges. Don’t forget, this is still a wilderness area. Be safe and inform a friend of your adventure and geographic location just in case your return is delayed.