Monday, April 21, 2014

Endless Wall Wildfire

33 hours ago, EC and I were sipping Kona coffee and watching the sun rise from our baller bungalow in Maui. Since then, we saw the sun set then another sun rise and then another sun set, so I'm pretty tired but wanted to post some pictures and an update from the forest fire that picked up today at Endless Wall. I swear, I can't leave this place unattended for a week without something happening.

Pretty much as soon as I got home, I saw a picture that Jay Young posted on Facebook of the fire. I quickly confirmed the legitimacy of the notorious prankster's claim by looking out the window for the smoke plume and then hopped in the rig and headed to the Hole Overlook on the Kaymoor side of the gorge. I ended up spending most of the day there and even managed to stumble up Lactic without puking...barely.

The photo above is from early in the day, maybe around 1:00, and the fire had burned about halfway down the gorge from Endless Wall.

This is a closer view of the fire around 1:00. The prominent buttress to the left of the thick smoke plume is Idol Point. The overlook from the top of the Hole had a few locals stationed on it and we all watched the action from a perfect vantage point. Within an hour, the fire spread upstream (right) to about the Flashpoint Area which is the orange streak near the right edge of the frame. It was also slowly spreading downstream as well as downhill toward the river. 

This Peregrine Falcon grabbed a to-go lunch and peaced out. His distinct Peregrine call rang out, "Ain't nobody got time for that!"

By late in the day, around 6:30, I got back up to the overlook and chatted with some NPS rangers that were there watching the fire progress. It had grown considerably but still didn't appear totally out of control. The spread is slow and steady. 

If you're interested in what's going on with the fire, here's what I know based on watching it all day and what the Rangers told me. I won't necessarily claim that it's 100% legit or that it's "factual" info...just what I know right now.

Pretty sure the fire started somewhere around Mellifluous/Party Buttress at the base of the cliff during the late afternoon/early evening of 4/20. No one knows for sure how it started and there's not really a reason to send in the CSI team so we probably never will. It was almost certainly caused by some human doing something dumb like flicking a cigarette butt over the edge of the cliff, but that's speculation. Hippies, of course, can't be logically ruled out.
We've had some outrageously low humidity levels lately and I know that even a month ago the rangers were keeping their eyes peeled for fires. But even despite the dryness, this fire isn't burning like how a western desert fire would. It's moving pretty slowly and it's really just burning the underbrush and leaving the big trees pretty much unscathed. As it moves down the gorge, the burned areas left behind look pretty good. My guess is that a lot of it will recover pretty quickly, especially as the leaves come back on the trees. We probably won't even notice for the most part. 

It moved most quickly upstream with the wind. I'd watch the front line slowly creep downhill into a drainage, then hit the bottom, catch a little breeze and skyrocket up the other side. It also burned downhill, which to me is fairly impressive considering how steep the gorge is, and it crept downstream toward Fern Buttress.

As far as I know, I saw no efforts by the NPS or wildland firefighters to put out the fire within the gorge. From what I understand, they immediately drew the line at the cliff, which makes sense, and starting working on keeping the flames inside the gorge between the cliff and the river. Working to put out the fire within the gorge is very difficult because of the steep terrain and inaccessibility.

At some point around 3:00, the fire hit the cliff just downstream of Diamond Point and jumped to the top. My understanding is that this may have occurred at the low angle corner to the left of Shudder Bugger. It's a relatively low angle gully clogged with dry green brier as I remember. I didn't see it, but apparently it happened quickly and the fire took off along the top of the cliff burning a lot of ground above Diamond Point.

Fire crews contained that fire pretty quickly and I believe that the top fire is currently under control. When I stopped watching it around 7:00, some cloud cover had come in, the sun dipped down, temperatures dropped, and humidity levels increased. The fire slowed down a lot. It appears to be holding on its own between Fern Creek, the river, the cliff and the ridge below Diamond Point. It could very easily cross Fern Creek or the Diamond Point ridge, but it did appear to be holding on its own there. 

The area within those benchmarks described is pretty burned up and there doesn't appear to be a lot of small fuel left. The trees are intact and there were large areas where the fire had run out of fuel and just moved on. The forecast is calling for rain in the early morning hours. It seems like rain would put it out pretty quickly. Even some high humidity would really slow it down...but I'm not a fire expert.

Damage to the rock? I personally doubt it. This isn't the first brush with fire that the cliffs have had and they've done fine. The sandstone here isn't really that porous so I doubt a little heat would cause any exfoliation. It's not like there were 100 foot high flames licking at the walls, just some little campfire-sized flame ups at the base. But again, speculation from someone that's not an expert and it's possible that the flames were bigger than they appeared from across the gorge.

As for closures? We'll have to see about that. My guess is that the Endless Wall trail was closed to the public today but I didn't check. I would guess that it will be closed tomorrow as well. Beyond that, I imagine that once the fire is out, we'll be allowed to hike out there pretty soon after and go climbing.

I might be able to find this stuff out, but I'm going to sleep now. I'll add an update tomorrow, or when I find out, in case anyone's planning a trip and would like to know.

Take home point: I love this cliff a lot and I'm going to sleep pretty well tonight believing that it's all gonna be fine. It's a bummer, especially if we lost some of the beautiful forest or large Hemlocks, but it's part of nature's cycle and will make for a healthier forest in the long run. 

That said...dammit people, be careful and don't burn the woods down! 

Update: I said I was going to go to bed but couldn't help but search around. Here's a link to some legit news that says the trails and climbing areas are currently closed:

Update: 4/22 9:24
Great nighttime photos from Jay Young and a morning update that says the fire is still burning. Click here.

Update: 4:23
I went out last evening around 6:00 and hiked in to the Cirque overlook from Beauty Mountain. At that time, both of the Endless Wall parking lots were closed. The fire had spread upstream of Diamond Point but it was hard to tell how far upstream. Jay Young was over at the Hole overlook and estimated that it hadn't quite made it to Honeymooner's Ladders. It definitely appears to be dying down.

Though both parking lots are closed, it's hard to say exactly how much of the cliff remains closed to climbing. Surely they'd want to keep people away from Diamond Point and Snake Buttress but it would be possible to hike into the Cirque from Beauty Mountain. It would be worth stopping to ask officials at the Endless Wall parking if that would be permissible. I haven't heard any news today yet. It was a pretty bad view from the Cirque last night but here's the photo.



Drew Peterson said...

Great assessment. This fire will probably look great in no time at all. West Virginia and its forest type are extremely resilient compared to our forests, and it will likely clean up nicely! Strange to see fire on the ground there!

Drew Peterson said...
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