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Lava Beds rebounding after blaze

The “Land of Burnt Out Fires” is rebounding after an estimated 31,000 acres of Lava Beds National Monument were scorched and, in many places, seriously fried by the Caldwell fire.

Lava Beds National Monument, which covers 47,500 acres, has been known historically as the “Land of Burnt Out Fires” because much of the land in and outside the park was created by fiery volcanic forces, including cataclysmic events that created more than 700 lava tube caves and an above-ground landscape shaped and fractured by massive lava flows.

The Caldwell fire, caused by a lightning strike July 21 that ignited into a fast-moving fire the morning of July 22, is 97% contained after spreading over 83,261 acres. The fire, which merged with other lightning-caused fires, is called the July Complex. The fire, which began near Lava Beds’ south boundary near Caldwell Butte, also burned in the adjacent Modoc National Forest and on private lands along the park’s southwestern flanks near Tionesta and Newell. The fire quickly ignited and spread, burning through range and forest lands.

“We couldn’t stay in front of it. It was too dangerous,” said Lava Beds Superintendent Larry Whalon, noting what began as a small blaze quickly blew into a massive, out-of-control conflagration. “It was a wall of fire. ... It was really erratic fire behavior. It burned very fast,” he said. “[Firefighters] were dancing with the fire. They know what they’re doing.”

The park was closed by the fire, thick smoke that limited visibility and large numbers of trucks and other rigs used in the firefighting effort. Although most of the fire crews, which peaked at 391 people, have left the park, some have stayed to help with clean-up efforts, such as the cutting and removal of hazard trees near and along park roads. Several signs were scalded and will be replaced.

Although areas of the park have been heavily impacted, Whalon hopes to allow visitors to enter the park to see and experience impacts of the blaze, possibly beginning late next week.

The visitor center, park residences and Mushpot Cave, the park’s only lighted cave, were not damaged. Indian Well Campground, which was not damaged, will not reopen until the water supply is determined safe for drinking.

Whalon returned to his residence, the historic superintendent’s house built of stone, earlier this week. He remained at the house until the fire neared the visitor center. “I grabbed my two cats and away we went.”

About 20 people, including seasonal and full-time staff, were evacuated from their park residences. Most have returned. Whalon said efforts are focused on making areas of the park safe for visitors. Ironically, he said, visitation had been higher than usual before the fire because of the pandemic. “This was a good place to get away.”

He’s anxious to have visitors return.

“We’ll get visitors back in here,” Whalon pledged during a park driving tour earlier this week. “That’s the goal. Why? So [visitors] can see the burn and start to understand about fire and the landscape. It’s about renewal. If they come back next spring, they’ll see wildflowers. This is fire resilient landscape. Plants will grow again.”

Whalon said he’s read entries on the park’s Facebook site from people saying they’ll never return to the park, something that causes him to shake his head and say, “They’ll just miss out.”

Before areas of the park reopen, mostly in the northern section south to park headquarters, crews will cut hazard trees, smother any lingering burn patches, hike popular trails and inspect caves. The most popular caves, including Indian Well, Skell, Mushpot and along the Cave Loop Road, will be the highest priorities for visitor use. “We’ll open them as quickly as we safely can.”

Whalon said areas south of park headquarters, which in many places were burned to fine ash and have numerous hazard trees, will likely remain closed for a longer time.

“It’s all hands on deck,” he said of having park personnel helping with tasks like washing park vehicles, checking hiking trails, ensuring caves are free of smoke and safe for visitors, along with other tasks.

Once Lava Beds reopens, Whalon said, the usual $25 per vehicle entrance fee will be waived for an undetermined amount of time because, “We want people to come. We don’t want to lose support for the park,” he emphasized, noting 60% of park visitors are from the Klamath and Tulelake basins and neighboring areas of Klamath, Modoc and Siskiyou counties.

To prevent possible looting of artifacts, rangers are monitoring areas such as Captain Jack’s Stronghold that were prominent during the Modoc War.

Whalon said several of the park’s historic sites, including the Schonchin Butte fire lookout, Medicine Flag in Captain Jack’s Stronghold and the Caldwell cabin, were not damaged. “How, I don’t know,” he said of the cabin, which is surrounded by heavy vegetation and is in an area that was heavily burned, one “where we couldn’t safely get anybody in there.”

The rock superintendent’s house, Whalon’s residence the past six years, was wrapped in protective heavy foil that has since been removed.

Areas near Caldwell Butte and the park’s lesser-used south entrance were severely burned. In some cases, the fire burned vegetation that exposed some previously unseen collapses. A major task will be cutting and removing hazard trees without it looking like a clear cut. As Whalon emphasized, “We don’t want it to look like a plantation.”

A drive along park roads showed varied impacts of the fire’s widespread damage. Some lava flows, like the Devil’s Homestead Lava Flow, appear blacker than usual. In some areas the fire crossed the main park road and burned both sides, but in others the road served as a fire break, with burnt vegetation on one side and untouched bunchgrass on the other.

“It will make a good contrast for visitors,” Whalon said of seeing immediate impacts of the fire and, in coming years, the landscape’s evolution and recovery.

Most of all, Whalon laments having to close the park.

“This is a good place to get away. It’s more of a social toll. It’s time lost with the visitors and the community. That’s time we’ll never get back.”

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

Lee Juillerat photo Lava Beds Superintendent Larry Whalon surveys fire damage from the Devil's Homestead Lava Flow overlook.