McIntyre, Freeman Creek, and Alder Creek, 11/27-29/2020
The westernmost Freeman Creek Trail bridge above
We went up to the mountains last weekend to assess the damage to the area from the recent Castle Fire. It was incredibly depressing, with shades of gray prevailing throughout. We'd seen heart-breaking pictures of damaged and destroyed cabins on the news and the internet, so we took this trip with the expectation of finding devastating losses. Our hearts go out to the owners of these cabins.
We walked a short length of the Freeman Creek Trail from the Quaking Aspen side, took the Nelson Trail up to Gutless Goliath, walked to the Alonzo Stagg Tree, and made a little quickie run down to the old fallen King David Tree by the Quaking Aspen Christian camp. The burn was very severe in some of those places. A lot of hillsides along the trails had 100% burn, and not even the fire-resistant sequoias will probably survive. McIntyre was the worst I saw, with gray everywhere, deep ash covering everything, and very little of the sequoias' characteristic cinnamon bark color even showing anywhere.
Here is a partial list of familiar named sequoias we saw and a quick description of the trees' condition. Warning: it's ugly.
Gutless Goliath: With almost no leaves left, the tree is burned top to bottom and holed through in multiple places above its huge base cavity. I can't imagine it surviving this fire.
Near Gutless: The tree has very few leaves left. The bole was mostly burned, broken off approx. 150 feet up. It has only one branch at the top extending another 10 feet up, so the remaining leaves are all heat burned. This tree is also unlikely to survive if I had to guess.
Domino Trees: No bark left, but most of the heartwood is still there.
Old Knot Head: A few leaves left, but the tree is burned top to bottom. The fire may have been fatal to this tree also.
Bent Tree: Perished. It's broken off well below the former bend, with no branches and only a short vertical stub left.
Wishbone Tree: Some fire damage, but still living, with some unburned greenery at the very top. This tree is the only highlight of this trail that I really expect to live.
Sentinel Tree: Broken off high up, burned top to bottom. Has a large cavity high up, which will probably collapse more of its length. You can still make it out from Highway 190 going up, but it's not taller than the rest of the surroundings anymore. When it loses more of its height you might not be able to identify it at all. Few leaves, with only a small amount of greenery. Its survival is questionable at this point.
King David: No longer a fully enclosed cabin, it is now riddled with openings. We found embers still burning inside its hollow core. We dumped what water we had on them, but its interior is still glowing in places and producing heat. A literal bed of hot coals.
Bannister: Lost its top above where a cavity used to be; however, it retains some green leaves. It will likely live, but it has lost some volume and probably a third of its height. Up to about 110 feet, the base of the tree is still a fully round column; after that, there's not much bole left. The remaining greenery extends up to about 160 feet. The tree should live, albeit slightly diminished; however, its upper 50 feet looks very precarious and I would not be surprised if that comes down, which would result in further loss.
Telescope: This tree now reminds me of the recent pics I took of the Millikan, only worse. What little still stands of the exterior are short black sides separated by gaping holes, with a burned-out mess in the middle. It seems like about half of the trees in this formerly exceedingly beautiful section of Freeman Creek are now significantly burned or broken short.
Leaner: This tree actually seems undamaged by the fire.
Large sequoia near Bannister (on our "Notable Honorable Mentions 25k-20k" list) also seems good.
The Alonzo Stagg Tree is still perfect, no damage.
The Waterfall/Day/Sierra Ghost/Big Base Tree is a clothespin snag now with the opening facing upward, but is only half as tall as it was formerly. It still has some green leaves on the small lower branches, so it will most likely continue to struggle to stay alive in its precarious perch.
The Window Tree is a decimated snag, broken off below its opening, so future generations will no longer understand the appellation.
The tree below the Window Tree, which has a dedication stone at its base, looks to be in decent shape.
We did not hike to the Patriarch, Above Patriarch, and Matriarch trees up the Bear Creek Trail; however, I have seen some pictures of them on the internet and they all look like the rest of the McIntye Grove area, fully burned. There is a good likelihood all of them have sustained terminal damage. Some trees in the Matriarch's nursery look like their chances for the future are promising.
We wanted to get into Mountain Home to assess the damages there, but the roads were closed, as was the road to the eastern edge of Freeman Creek Grove, so we could not get into either of those areas. I hope the recent logging in Mountain Home might have helped the sequoias' survival rate due to fuel reduction. The eastern Freeman Creek Grove, conversely, had a high concentration of downed trees and hence more fuel for longer, hotter burns than most of the places I have hiked recently. I hate to think of all the trees in those two areas that might be damaged or gone. However, I need to check them out. I'm not looking forward to it.
In our wanderings last weekend, we found at least a dozen still smoking chimneys--broken-off trees with glowing coals inside and smoke billowing into the air, one with visible flames. And the King David carcass was still glowing internally, obviously still burning like an old campfire where the late snowfall could not get to it.
We lost an unusually great number of our largest and most unique "plant friends," as John Muir would put it. The expected sequoia survival rate in a typical forest fire is high. Instead the 2020 Castle Fire resulted in a surprisingly high casualty rate in many areas. We will need to study the reasons for this more catastrophic than usual resultant for the big trees to determine how to prevent another tremendous loss in the future.
If you wish to venture up there to see these sad sights for yourself, keep in mind that the ash is slippery and sometimes deep, and there's a danger of falling limbs or tree crowns. Check the weather before you go, and if high winds are predicted, reschedule your trip.
Of the groves we visited, McIntyre seemed the hardest hit, with some smoke and residual burning still happening.
Top row from left: a still-burning tree in McIntyre Grove, the Sentinel Tree, and the one bright spot in the hike: the still-surviving Wishbone Tree
Center row: the remainder of the Bent Tree, the Domino Trees, and King David
Bottom row: Gutless Goliath, Near Gutless, and Old Knot Head
Sadly, the only one that looks likely to survive for future generations is the Wishbone Tree.
The western edge of the Freeman Creek Trail was damaged, but not as completely as the McIntyre Grove was. The Bannister Tree (top row) has lost height but still stands; however, the Telescope Tree (lower row) is charred to nearly nothing.
Below from left: one of the large backyard trees in Alder Creek, the Waterfall Tree, and the former Window Tree