Alder Creek Grove “After” the Castle Fire
by Sue Cag
My home burned down on September 13th, 2020. It took a very long three and a half weeks for the Castle Fire / SQF Complex Fire to reach us. We watched every day as the fire slowly approached while no one did anything about it. Finally, it turned into a wind-driven torch that took half the neighborhood and killed a great number of our Alder Creek Grove giant sequoias. Contrary to the common misperception that fires are fought, this fire was in no way prevented from reaching us or the grove. Despite pleas from the local community, the Northern Rockies Incident Team did nothing to slow or prevent the fire from burning down our homes and forest. They are responsible for the loss of our homes as well as for killing numerous giant sequoia trees.
We watched it all unfold in real time via our security cameras, other cameras in the neighborhood, the Jordan Lookout Tower cameras (now destroyed), satellite fire detection imagery (via several online tools), and Flighradar24, which shows air support, or in our case, lack thereof.
Over a month later, the sequoias are still burning.
Below are unaltered personal notes and complete photos I sent to friends after my first hike in the Alder Creek Grove since it burned, plus photos of the grove. This is a preliminary report that represents my raw first impressions. I will continue to document the losses. If you have any questions, please contact me.
Everyone, I’m sending these notes to several people. Some of you will know the trees and places I’m referring to and I’m thinking of you as I write them. We are currently still in the desert (Kern Valley), but now allowed to go back up to the Crest. We will move into our rental up there in a couple weeks, even though there is no power or potable water. In the meantime, we just spent two partial days on the mountain, the first taking a long walk and the second trying to get Edison not to disgracefully drop every single one of our trees (even those that survived the fire) on top of the remains of our house before our insurance adjuster has even gotten a chance to see it. It’s certainly eye-opening to realize that you don’t actually have any say about what happens to your own house or land, unless bills need to be paid of course.
But this message is about the trees.
On Friday we went up to the Crest and took a long walk to see the trees. These are my notes. We didn’t get to see all of the sequoias, but eventually we’ll explore the entire grove post-fire and try to document as much as possible. Determining how many sequoias were damaged or lost and what percentage of the grove was impacted will take some time. We also have a ton of photos taken prior to the fire which will show a startling contrast.
Many trees are still on fire, both sequoias and other conifers. The lower Alder Drive area as well as the side at and above Hossack burned severely. Other areas were patchy or burned lightly. Despite constant speculation and the repeating of outdated info about fire, there is no discernible pattern. Unpredictable wind gusts likely drove much of it.
You can still see spot fires and plumes in the distance. The ground is covered in ash and is very thick in places. It’s not safe to walk. Advise yourselves and others not to go walking under the trees or through the ash. Even walking down the road isn’t really safe. We had to stay vigilant and aware of burning trees, thick ash, possible falling limbs, and so forth. We do at least have prior experience in burned forests. The air quality is also very bad, though it seems to be slowly improving (hopefully) and we were treated to some blue sky. The air reeks of smoke. Just walking around will make your clothes smell like campfire and your lungs suffer. There may be chemicals in the air from the burnt houses, I don’t know, but there is also a “chemical” smell coming from many of the burnt trees.
We walked about 8.5 miles of the grove. First, we took a look at Morley’s trees on Alder. The one on fire in the video that circulated is a tall snag now. They “denuded” it. Every single branch was cut off, but they left the remnant standing. This was the only cutting on any tree I could see. The sequoia next to this one has lost its top and is currently on fire. I could see red embers glowing on the side of the trunk and hear sounds of crackling and popping. I captured a little bit on video. The next huge tree above Morley’s Alder cabin is also damaged (probably fatally) and is also still on fire. Another sequoia in the woods downslope lost its top and looks dead. A huge old prostrate trunk on the ground downslope is smoking and burning.
Next, we headed down the escape route/Fox Farm road. The weeping sequoia is completely charred. It would be a miracle if it made it. This entire area below Alder is awful. It’s all gray ash, black trunks, and brown needles. There’s no green whatsoever. We walked down “River Road.” The big tree just below (across from the weeping sequoia) is lopped off, but still has a few modest branches sticking out of the side that may save it. The first big one right on the road is badly burnt, is missing part of its top, and not looking like it will survive. From here you can see all the way through the woods because the ground is ash, no shrubs, no understory. If you look upslope, you can plainly see through to the Mulville’s on the other side of Alder. The view downslope looking toward Webb’s consists of brown dead conifers interspersed with the large skeletons of giant sequoias. Several of them are still on fire, with smoke coming out of holes where branches used to be.
I lost count of how many sequoias were heavily damaged and/or probably dead in this area. It’s incredibly depressing. No more orange trunks. No more vibrant green canopies.
Farther along River Road I started seeing some green crowns upslope. Farther still, one of the nice trees we walked by the day we evacuated appeared in view with its huge branches and canopy unchanged. The fire came half-way up the trunk, but did no noticeable damage. The trees along Alder Creek below retained their greenery on top as well, despite a lot of ash below.
The forest downstream is all burned up as far as I can see all the way to Mountain Home. Visibility was very poor. I could barely make out the crowns of Mountain Home. It looks like all the green is gone between here and there. I could see a large cloud of smoke from the fire still burning somewhere near the Tule in an upper section of Mountain Home perhaps, or beyond it, it’s hard to tell.
We backtracked and went up the very steep road path that goes upslope to the logging camp. The trees at the start look awful, tops gone, spindly-looking skeleton branches sticking out of the sides, limbs and tops all over the ground. Farther up, I found several sequoias only lightly charred. Still views of broken off tops, but the area changed from complete loss to spotty. A tree I called “Lichen” (that I’ll have to rename because all the lichen is gone) is fine. The tree I call “Pedestal” is not. This is the tree with the very large perimeter mentioned in Flint’s book. Its base is huge, and still is, but along with the top, most of the trunk is missing. It’s a window tree now. Somehow it retains green foliage on side branches, so it may live on. I have a lot of video of this tree. It will be interesting to compare.
Beyond this, evidence of fire all but disappears. The fire appears to have come down the north side of Alder Creek and jumped the creek below and west of the Stagg Tree, skipping that area altogether. All of the trees around the logging camp are untouched. All of the trees I could see by looking toward the Stagg and Waterfall area looked fine. We didn’t head that way, but instead headed straight up Ski Hill. It’s kind of too bad that the fire didn’t burn away all those shrubs in the hot, exposed, clear-cut eyesore of Ski Hill.
The view from Ski Hill is of numerous emerald sequoia canopies in front of a backdrop of brown dead forest on the north side of Alder Creek. At the junction, Scott & David’s teeny tiny sequoia still lives, more threatened by the obvious many trucks that have been tearing through the forest than the fire.
There are modest burned areas here and there at this point, but nothing damaging. We kept going up. I really wanted to make sure “AC” was ok. This is the tree we call “Alder Creek Giant” or “AC” for short because it seems to loom above everything, with a thick base, and a grand multiple-top canopy. The fire burned below, but other than losing one minor branch and some charring of the trunk, the tree is fine. The chinquapin on the upslope side has been burned back, allowing me to clearly see that side for the first time. This is the way a sequoia fire should be.
Continuing above AC, I looked for one of my wildlife cameras. Unfortunately, it burned up. I found the untouched strap still wrapped around a small tree. The camera itself was surely knocked off by a bear (they love to pummel wildlife cameras) since I found it in burnt pieces on the ground.
We continued climbing up to the area we refer to as the “snag forest” since there were many sequoias that burned heavily in the distant past, along a few snags. One of the trees I referred to as “Steadfast” because the big tree had burned (in the past) on both sides, yet the tree was still vibrant and thriving. Not anymore. It’s all on the ground now, all of it. One of the nearby snags was still on fire, with obvious glowing and sparking wood.
The sequoia we refer to as “Blueprint” (because it has a perfect sequoia shape) as well as the tall old snag that stands near it are both fine. The fire nicely burned away old fallen branches and debris below.
Another sequoia in view lost its top, but has a few branches on the sides, but I didn’t head that way to find out more about the trees over there (next time). We also got a view of “Column,” the nice sequoia that stood straight and tall with no trees around it. The top is snapped off. I have video of this tree before the fire which will be very poignant to watch.
Other sequoias and conifers in this area are fine, with green canopies unchanged. The fire was obviously patchy here. We continued up. The “Hidden Cabin” tree (a sequoia with a cavern hiding on the upslope side) is fine and all the old branches that were on the ground around it are burned away nicely. The adjacent depression upslope where a road used to come down is badly burnt due to an overgrowth of shrubs the fire was obviously quite fond of. From here we turned to climb even farther upslope, taking the trail we cut last summer up to our viewpoint.
The forest was ok until we got close to our view where it all turned to ash. From this viewpoint of ours you can scan up to the top of Alder Creek and Jordan Peak, down to the sequoias below, and over to Moses and Maggie mountains (on a clearer day). The “picnic area” (a ridge area in view high above and past the creek) is all brown and grey. Jordan Tower is a shell. The fire scorched down the slope, but left a mix of green and brown conifers in a middle section. Looking down toward the edge of the grove, the sequoia domes appear completely unchanged. My other wildlife camera I had up here was completely burned up, as was the entire swathe of bitter cherry that the bears loved so much.
Next, we went back down, then followed our trail all the way across, heading in the direction of Sonny’s Group. The forest became unrecognizable. The routes we figured out going up to Skip’s Rock are gone. The ground is just barren and ash. The highest elevation (smallish) sequoia is charred, but maybe alive. We connected with the road that goes above Poppy and heads toward Sonny’s. The forest is totally charred. This is the area where they thinned like crazy and just finished last summer. The widened road where you’d think there was nothing to burn, at least no trees, is burned up anyway. Every single bit of shrub is absent. You wouldn’t know any of it existed if you hadn’t been here before. You can see far into the woods through the absence of the shrubs, it’s just vertical lines of black “sticks” (trees).
I broke down when we came upon Sonny’s Group. The cluster of eleven big sequoias stand there like colorless skeletons, all horribly damaged. All is grey and brown. There is no orange color at all on any of the trunks. There is no green. The open area where we all sat for Kim’s birthday is covered by wreckage of tree limbs and tops. Don’t ask me if any of them will survive. There are some branches sticking out, but they all look horrible. It’s just devastating.
Going past Sonny’s on the zigzagging paths that lead downslope, we stopped at the big tree you can almost see from Sonny’s. It’s one you’ve all passed. It leaves hundreds of cones on the path and you slip on them like roller skates as you try to go downslope. I call this big one “White Thorn” because it had a huge mass of white thorn crowding its base, so much so that you couldn’t get through to touch tree. Well, all that white thorn burned up and lit the sequoia on fire. The fire entered from the base where the white thorn pressed up against it. The fir trees around this sequoia did not burn. The trunk is still orange above the blackening at the bottom. A large branch lies on the ground. Looking up, the canopy is still huge, with gigantic branches and lush greenery. But, it’s not over yet. This tree is on fire, burning from the inside. I can see smoke coming out of the hole where the branch fell off. The branch on the ground has a charred joint where it met the tree. I hate to think of losing this grand canopy and I don’t know what will happen.
The big tree closest to White Thorn (I referred to as “Lost Leader” because there was a very long piece of top that looked like a separate tree on the ground near it) dropped all of its top along with much of its body. Two shard-like pieces of trunk remain above, empty in the middle, like tweezers. Some green barely clings on.
We continued down to connect with the Orientation Trail. The fire burned up the huge logs the thinning crews left behind. Luckily, they chipped everything else. Heading north downslope I got a glimpse of the Woodpecker Tree (the crazy leaning sequoia) and it looks good, as do all of the other trees in this area. There was some spotty ground fire, but all is fine from here all the way down to where the path meets the Dogwood trail. There is blackening of some, but no permanent damage. Monet and nearby trees are untouched. Same thing for the stretch going down Dogwood. The ground is burned here and there, but no damage. The “Lightning Tree” along Dogwood is badly damaged (yet again), but it might live on.
We popped out at Dogwood and turned right. All is lush and green. Scott & David, you two can sit on your deck like nothing ever happened. The big sequoia in view is just as you left it. Folks won’t even see the majority of the damage since most don’t go out walking and most don’t go below Alder or up to Sonny’s. People over here could easily pretend nothing happened.
We did the “ladder” down Ponderosa, then turning left on Chinquapin, right on Redwood, then finally left on Alder back to the escape route where we parked. We walked past many burned up cabins. There’s absolutely no pattern to it, just dumb luck. The Bushy sequoia on the corner of Ponderosa and Chinquapin is charred at the bottom (and may erode), but ok. Gazing into the woods away from the paved road, the sequoias look good in there.
It turned to dusk by the time we reached the corner of Redwood and Alder. The huge sequoia along the road just past the Dowds and the old Rouch cabins rained embers down on us. We call this the “Jesus Tree” because it looks sort of like a cross (when seen from the west). It’s the one with the Jesse Stockton memorial sign stuck inside the fire scar that has been grown over by the tree. I looked back to see tiny flames in the branches and foliage up top. The trunk is charred, but most of the crown looked intact, at least for now.
The Window Tree (Flint) is dead. It’s completely broken off. The big sequoia near it looks untouched. I assume that the trees along the route to Stagg over there are alright as well. The pair (one leaning with the stone plaque below) on the lower corner of Alder there are charred at the bottom, but ok. Morley included an old picture of these two on Facebook, mistakenly saying they were the pair of hers that burned above her Alder cabin. They do look similar.
The sequoias down Alder and in the space between Redwood and Alder on this side are all very heavily damaged. I will have to count them at some point. The big burly one that stands between where someone’s house and garage used to be looks bad. It’s another mentioned in Flint’s book.
We paused again as we passed the trio along the road above where Morley’s cabin was. The embers were easier to see now that it was dark. I also saw a flash in the larger sequoia, but I couldn’t make out flames or smoke. I could hear it burning though. These two will probably have dropped more wood and died by the time I see them again.
Previous Notes from 10/11/20:
On the day of the police escort, we very briefly snuck away to check on a few sequoias upslope from our cabin. We checked on “Water Well,” the big tree everyone knows by its proximity to the water tanks. Despite having no other conifers near it, it burned badly and lost its top. The entire landscape in this area burned horribly. Cave Tree and Kitchen Tree look like skeletons at first glance, but we didn’t get a chance to go up to get a closer look. I barely had time to quickly run upslope to see my Immortal/Portal Tree. It’s gone. I sent a picture Kim took of me at this tree to some of you.
Much more to follow. I’ll be assembling lot of before and after photos and video no doubt. I will bear witness to what has happened and continues to happen to our precious sequoia forests.
All photos by Sue Cag. All Rights Reserved. Photos may not be used without permission.