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Thursday, February 21 , 2019, 2:01 am | Fair 46º

 
 
 
 

Ray Ford: Driving Road to Jameson Reservoir Yields a Heavy Heart

Sunday Trek into backcountry reveals major damage to area's watershed, destruction of caretaker's cabin

When the Thomas Fire swept into the Jameson Reservoir area on the upper Santa Ynez River on Sunday, it destroyed the caretaker’s cabin. Click to view larger
When the Thomas Fire swept into the Jameson Reservoir area on the upper Santa Ynez River on Sunday, it destroyed the caretaker’s cabin. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

It was 2:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon and the Santa Barbara County fire crews battling the Thomas Fire had just completed their fire-out of the ridge west of Santa Monica Canyon.

They’d been able to do this because of a shift in the winds. The downhill breeze is now moving the smoke east and up into the canyon and stopping the fire’s advance in its tracks.

Things look good here right now but I’m hearing bad things about the other side of the mountains. I get an email from a friend who says he hears that the upper Santa Ynez River drainage is getting hammered by the fire.

He tells me the forest caretaker at the Pendola Station has left the area, even before he’s been able to wrap the station with fire retardant material to protect it. 

I’ve also heard from several other U.S. Forest Service officials the fire may now be at Romero Saddle, and for sure that it is along the top of the Divide Peak OHV route near an open area known as Toro Saddle which is immediately above Toro Canyon.

Unsure of what to believe I head up Gibraltar Road to see how far along East Camino Cielo I’ll be able to get. The dozers are hard at work along the crest building fire line and the line of trucks that have hauled them up here tells me there are plenty more ahead of me building more fire line. 

View to Romero

It isn’t until I get almost to Romero Saddle that I can get a good view of the upper Santa Ynez watershed or the eastern part of the Santa Ynez Mountains. The good news is that the fire isn’t anywhere near Romero Saddle.

A stark charred landscape surrounds Juncal Dam, which forms Jameson Reservoir, after the Thomas Fire blasted through the area over the weekend. The Jameson watershed was almost completely burned. Click to view larger
A stark charred landscape surrounds Juncal Dam, which forms Jameson Reservoir, after the Thomas Fire blasted through the area over the weekend. The Jameson watershed was almost completely burned. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

It appears through the smoky haze it may even be further east than the Toro Saddle area, but in any case, what I can see up there is more a series of small spots that are working their way to the crest rather than the type of firestorm that must have come down the Santa Ynez River to Jameson Reservoir the night before.

Nor is there any sign of fire on the south side of the crest at this point, but that could change should the wind pick up on top. Right now there is no wind up here. It’s calm and that’s really, really nice to see.

Down into the river drainage there is a heavy cloud of dark-brown to almost-black smoke. Another friend who is over on the Cuyama side of the fire emails me to say there is a huge thunderhead building towards the Monte Arido crest, which is immediately east of Pendola Station.

But given the smoke I can’t confirm if that’s happening or where the source of the smoke might be.

Heading to Jameson

At the last turn before reaching Romero Saddle, I’ve get my first good view into the Pendola and Jameson Reservoir area. I’ve got my phone out trying to orient myself when a Santa Barbara County Fire truck pulls up beside me. Out steps Rob Hazard, a battalion chief and county deputy rire marshal.

The Thomas Fire destroyed the caretaker’s cabin and damaged surrounding structures at Jameson Reservoir on the upper Santa Ynez River. Click to view larger
The Thomas Fire destroyed the caretaker’s cabin and damaged surrounding structures at Jameson Reservoir on the upper Santa Ynez River.

Rob had visited the Jameson Reservoir area the night before and his goal this day was to assess conditions up there and ascertain if it might be possible to conduct fire-out operations along the Camuesa jeepway to keep the fire from moving further west down the river.

Rob points down towards the jeepway where the fire has burned northeast up into several lesser canyons between the Juncal crossing on the Santa Ynez River and Pendola. The fire appears to be heading towards Monte Arido on the crest dividing Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties.

At 6,003 feet, Monte Arido is the tallest mountain in the area.

But it is also working its way back downslope towards Camuesa and the river area.

“We may need to burn the area out if the wind picks up,” he tells me.

The Jameson Reservoir watershed was largely burned out when the Thomas Fire moved through the area over the weekend. Click to view larger
The Jameson Reservoir watershed was largely burned out when the Thomas Fire moved through the area over the weekend. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

But if the wind continues to push east it may also burn itself out when it reaches the road. Either way, engine crews will be in here the next day to monitor the conditions and burn if needed.

Hazard’s attention turns back to the Jameson area.

“Last night the area above Jameson was getting hit hard,” he tells me. “I want to get back in there to see how bad the damage is and if the caretaker’s cottage has survived.”

I’m a little leery of the drive down into the canyon, but I follow Hazard to Juncal where the fire is smoldering, with small pockets of fire and lots of smoke. He unlocks the gate leading up to Jameson and we’re on our way. There are a few rocks and branches to move out of the way but amazingly the road is in pretty good condition.

Though the road has survived, everything around it hasn’t. From the Juncal area where the Camuesa jeepway crosses the river, everything is black with a complete burnout on both sides of the canyon.

Black in ash lines both sides of the road into Jameson Reservoir, which was overun by the Thomas Fire over the weekend. Click to view larger
Black in ash lines both sides of the road into Jameson Reservoir, which was overun by the Thomas Fire over the weekend. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

The black continues all the way to the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains and as I later discover all the way up the river beyond Jameson to Murrieta Divide. The Jameson Reservoir watershed has been completely burned out.

Several miles up from Juncal, the river canyon narrows and the road climbs up around the south side to a point where you can see the dam. There is a side road leading down to the base of the dam and to the north side of it a side road that leads to the caretaker’s home.

Hazard parks before heading down and takes a look.

“It’s not looking good down there,” he says. “There’s way too much black for the place to have made it.”

A few minutes later as we pull up to the caretaker’s residence, his worries are confirmed. All that is left is the chimney.

“Damn!” Hazard shouts out. “I was just here last night and I thought it would make it.”

It is a beautiful location. From the rock used to build what is left of the cottage and surrounding stones that have been used for landscape decoration, I can see this was a beautiful place.

Damn.

From there we drive up to a point where we can look out over the reservoir. Nothing but black and dead sticks remain of what was a picturesque chaparral-covered canyon. 

Franklin Trail Blues

To the southeast I can see the indentation in the mountainside that marks the lower part of the Alder Creek drainage. The backside of the Franklin Trail leads up the creek to the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Alder has been burned out completely as well, and the assumption from here is that the front side Franklin has as well. 

I’m wondering what the damage will be like there. I’ve spent the last few years working on re-opening the upper Franklin Trail on the front side along with a number of friends. This past year, a crew supported by funding from the Carpinteria community has made it possible to complete the trail to the crest.

We’d planned on one last work project on the crest, working back down the trail towards town to do a last bit of tread work and brushing. Had the plans worked out, we would alredy have been on top.

Given the potential damage caused by the fire, it is not inconceivable that we could lose everything we’ve gained over the past few years. 

Heading Out

Both Rob and I head back down to Juncal with heavy hearts. By the time this fire is over, it will have taken a toll on so many people.

It appears now that it is destined to become one of California’s largest wildfires, at least in terms of acreage. 

It has just been a week since the fire began.

For many, this will be one of the longest weeks of their entire lives.

Noozhawk outdoor writer Ray Ford can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here for his website, SBoutdoors.com. Follow him on Twitter: @riveray. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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