Some Mount Charleston trails clear after wildfire but vigilance required


Even after the blaze is out, some tree stumps and roots scorched by the Carpenter 1 Fire could continue to smolder until the first big snowstorm hits Mount Charleston this fall.

There won’t be any obvious smoke or flame, but if you step on one of these hidden hazards you could find yourself up to your knees in burning embers.

This is just one of the challenges facing forest officials as they work to reopen the Spring Mountains to hikers.

U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jay Nichols declined to speculate on how long some trails might remain closed, but he noted that there are still fire­fighters working on the mountain and conditions are not yet safe to allow a detailed evaluation of trail conditions.

Some trails — mostly in Lee Canyon and at the northern edge of Kyle Canyon — reopened last week.

It could be weeks before the remaining trails are deemed safe enough for hikers again.

The South Loop and Griffith Peak trails, for example, run right through the burned area.

Nichols said “part of the evaluation” will look at whether those trails should remain closed until every last bit of smoldering material has been extinguished.

“It’s kind of an attractive nuisance. People want to go where the smoke is,” he said.

But before you think of indulging that impulse, Nichols notes that anyone caught violating the fire closure order is subject to a misdemeanor charge that carries up to 6 months in jail and a $5,000 fine.

None of the closed trails will be reopened until forest personnel can get out and walk them themselves.

“Before we open them back up, people will be in there doing safety checks,” said Brooke Nunez, current incident commander for the fire. “And the weather is going to play a part in how soon some trails can reopen.”

Gentle rain, cooler temperatures and higher humidity could speed the process by squelching whatever is left of the fire.

But heavy downpours on denuded hillsides could wash away sections of trail or bury them in rocks and dirt.

During a recent briefing, Nunez and her fellow fire officers rattled off a list of fire-related hazards for hikers, including loose rocks, fallen logs, ash pits, stump holes and snags, which are old dead trees that may have partially burned, leaving them prone to collapse.

Then there are “widowmakers,” wildland firefighter lingo for branches on fire-damaged trees that can fall off and kill you.

Nunez said when the trails do open back up, hikers well need to pay extra attention to their surroundings.

Added Nichols: “Just wandering off the trail is not a good idea.”

Branch Whitney has been hiking in the Spring Mountains for 30 years. Since 1998, he has made it his business to know the trails and attractions there well enough to write about them in his popular series of “Hiking Las Vegas” guidebooks.

Over the July 4 weekend, he planned to lead a hiking meet-up group on a “very scenic but very difficult” trek to Charleston Peak from Carpenter Canyon. The fire canceled that outing.

In the days that followed, he and his fellow outdoor enthusiasts took to social media to post almost hourly fire updates and snapshots of the smoke.

Even as the fire continued to grow, members of the local hiking community were online discussing what it would take — and how they could help — to restore Mount Charleston’s trail system.

Whitney said much of what burned was on the west side of the mountain “where really very, very few people hike. We kind of got lucky in a sense.”

The biggest loss as far as he is concerned is the string of meadows between Griffith and Charleston peaks. “That was a really pretty area.”

Whitney said he is trying to focus on what the flames spared and the fire­fighters saved. “That’s all you can do and not get too depressed.”

For example, he said, Forest Service workers recently finished a major overhaul of the Cathedral Rock picnic area at the end of state Route 157 in Kyle Canyon, “and they did a great job.”

Fire crews were able to keep the blaze from erasing all that work.

Higher up, along the North Loop Trail to the summit of Mount Charleston, stands a bristlecone pine nicknamed Raintree that’s said to be at least 3,000 years old.

Whitney said the tree and the bristlecones around it are all safely outside the burned area.

“It’s bad,” he said, “but it could always be worse.”

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.

 

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