Friday, April 20 , 2018, 8:34 am | Fair 57º


Local News

Ray Ford: Thomas Fire Causes Serious Damage to Front Country Trails

Only Rattlesnake, Mission Canyon and San Roque trails untouched by the 272,000-acre blaze


Given the impact on our local community, with homes burned, losses mounting and thousands of residents still displaced by the Thomas Fire, we are now only beginning to understand the other immeasurable losses that the fire has caused.

One of these is the loss of vital vegetative cover on many of our local hiking and biking trails.

After hiking a number of the trails in recent days, it appears that this loss will make it impossible for them to be used for the foreseeable future, including the Romero, Cold Spring, San Ysidro, Buena Vista and Hot Springs trails.

In the Santa Barbara Front County, only the Rattlesnake, Mission Canyon and San Roque trails were not impacted.

The impacts include trails covered by down trees and brush that block access, rocks and loose material covering them, and crumbling tread that may require extensive repairs before they can be opened again. More importantly, they are even more vulnerable to any significant amount of rainfall in the coming months.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon hiking up a section of the Hot Springs Road to the McMenemy Trail, followed it up the Saddle Rock Trail and from there up to the Edison Jeepway just east of the historic hot springs.

A short distance up the McMenemy Trail the reality hit hard: above me, from west to east to the top of the mountains, with the exception of a small thin band of vegetation winding its way up Hot Springs Creek, there was no vegetation to be seen.

Each step forward brought more of the same. At one small opening along the Saddle Rock Trail I could see the McMenemy Trail meandering over to the stone bench, also completely devoid of vegetation. At another I caught a glimpse northeast into San Ysidro Canyon and the hills beyond.

They also burned to mineral soil. Every turn, every corner, every spot where I can peek down into the next canyon, more of the same.

Looking east from the Girard Trail, where Girard bench is located. Click to view larger
Looking east from the Girard Trail, where Girard bench is located.  (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

The hiking is not easy. The ravel is thick in places, fine sandy material that completely covers the trail. It is like trying to walk sideways on a sand dune, with my feet sinking boot high and bringing more of the ravel down as I make my way across it.

In other places (and along the majority of the trails), loose rocks covered the trail, pieces 3 inches, 4 inches and 5 inches in diameter that require total concentration to work my way through. The worst of it isn’t the rock though; it’s the steep, barren slopes below the trail that will provide no way to catch myself if I lose my footing.

Thankfully I’m able to complete the loop without serious difficulty, but my guess is that a few more days of falling rock, loose scree coming down and enough wind to bring down fire-weakened trees or other dead material, many of these trails will be completely impassable. If not, the first rains (if they ever come) will surely close them off.

It is not clear how difficult it will be to re-open these trails. Looking from the top down, from Romero on the east to the far west side of Cold Springs Canyon along Gibraltar Road, my guess would be that 90 percent of the vegetation has been burned down to mineral soil, with no ground cover left at all and little but blackened sticks left on the hillsides.

For trails such as those in San Ysidro or Cold Springs canyons, where there are miles of trail that cut down and across the flanks of mountain wall, or lower slope trails like the McMenemy, there is nothing left to anchor the hillsides in place. In others that lead down into or out of the lower canyons, where the hillsides can be steep and rocky, the potential for damage either from washouts, flooding or fire-weakened vegetation is a cause for concern.

While post-fire restoration may solve some of these issues, the potential for severe damage to our front country trails is not only real, but re-opening them could be both difficult and expensive.

Trail by trail review

Every day I’ve been asked about someone’s favorite trail here in the front country. Included here is a brief review of the impacts canyon by canyon and what might be expected.

Much of the frontcountry burned in the Thomas Fire. This view shows Montecito Peak with Cold Spring Trail on the west flank. Click to view larger
Much of the frontcountry burned in the Thomas Fire. This view shows Montecito Peak with Cold Spring Trail on the west flank.  (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

Romero Canyon: Upper canyon is completely burned out with small amounts of vegetation left, but little to anchor the trails. All of the Old Romero Road and the canyon trail were heavily damaged. Part of this is along the Edison Road, which will get repaired, but the upper part of the old road may see a lot of erosion. 

The riparian corridor along the canyon trail is somewhat intact, but burning of the brush under the trees left many of them damaged. The upper canyon trail to the crest is completely burned out and will be difficult to repair given the steep hillsides, loose soils and scree slopes that will bring lots of material down onto the trail.

Buena Vista Trail: Buena Vista is a shorter trail but it includes several lower sections with steep, poorly-designed sections that could see damage with the loss of vegetation. The middle section goes through a narrow canyon that will most likely be damaged if we receive any amount of rainfall this winter. The upper canyon has trails leading up to the Romero Jeepway on the east and San Ysidro Canyon on the west. Both are vulnerable to washouts and trail damage if it rains much.

San Ysidro Canyon: The lower part of the canyon trail leads along an Edison Road to the start of the canyon trail. The first section of the canyon trail is along a fairly narrow canyon that is already steep and rocky. Most of the vegetation along this section was burned out, leading it vulnerable to washouts, hillside failure and impacts from fire-weakened vegetation. The upper half of the trail leading to the crest is completely devoid of vegetation.

Above the San Ysidro Falls are several sections of trail very prone to washouts that could close the trail due to the almost vertical dropsoff above the waterfall. Beyond this, trail and hillside failure is possible if we receive heavy amounts of rainfall.

A signpost is damaged at the top of the Girard Trail at the Edison Jeepway, looking east to San Ysidro Canyon. Click to view larger
A signpost is damaged at the top of the Girard Trail at the Edison Jeepway, looking east to San Ysidro Canyon. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

The McMenemy and Girard trails: They provide a popular loop route for many local trail users. The McMenemy Trail cuts across a section of steep, rocky hillsides that have no vegetation on them. In the middle of the route Oak Creek cuts across the trail. There is a major potential for damage at the point where the creek crosses as well as from rock slides from the hills above the trail.

The Girard Trail is a short three-fourths-mile trail connecting McMenemy to the upper Edison Jeepway. The trail is rock-filled with lots of ravel across the slopes and numerous spots with steep dropoffs that easily could wash out. This trail is extremely vulnerable to damage that could be difficult to repair.

Hot Springs Canyon: Hot Springs is almost completely burned out with the exception of a thin band of riparian vegetation along the creek. The McMenemy Trail on this side is in poor condition and needs to be realigned. There are trails leading along the east and west side of the canyon that allow users to avoid walking the road. Both are mostly burned out and could receive extensive damage with heavy rainfall.

The Saddle Rock Trail leads directly up a sharp ridgeline on the east side of the canyon to the upper Edison Road. It is more a climb than a hiking trail and is already deeply eroded in places. All vegetation on either side of the ridge is gone, leaving the trail even more prone to erosion. 

Cold Spring Canyon: Like San Ysidro, Cold Spring Canyon is almost completely burned out. The West Fork Trail (leading to Tangerine Falls or Gibraltar Road) has a number of sections with steep hillsides very prone to washouts and hillside failure. The trail had to be relocated after 2005 rainfall caused a major hillside failure there. A similar event could occur here if we receive heavy rainfall. 

The East Fork Trail, which leads up the main canyon to crest and also loops back down via the Ridge Trail, burned throughout the canyon, leaving many trees and brush down across the trail throughout the canyon section.

The upper trail above the power lines leading up to Montecito Peak and to Camino Cielo is completely burned out and vulnerable to washouts, slides and rock debris falling onto the trail. This part of the trail is already in poor condition and could become difficult to use or impassable with severe rainfall.

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

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