I distinctly remember when the Station Fire hit – I had taken a week off of work to do some camping and hiking in Yosemite and the Eastern Sierra in the late summer of 2009. While I was in Yosemite a controlled burn quickly became an uncontrolled burn, requiring a multi-hour additional drive from my hiking territory on the north rim back to my Valley camp and eventually prompting warnings from Park Officials for visitors to limit their outdoor activities.
As I made my way south down the Eastern Sierra, I kept hearing news reports about a fire in the Angeles National Forest. At first it was a small blaze and few were worried – but that quickly became a massively out of control inferno, burning over 160,000 acres and killing two firefighters near Mount Gleason. It also shut down the entire Angeles National Forest.
Over the next few years, the Forest Service slowly re-opened large sections of the Angeles to the public, but a sizable chunk of the interior of the San Gabriels remains closed.
Like many of you, I wanted to do something – anything to help. But the volunteering options were limited in the fire’s immediate aftermath and good intentions – as they often do – fell victim to the tedium of life’s micro-scheduling. I signed up for a few trail work email lists but was almost always busy with something else when the work was going on.
Well, a few weeks ago, I finally made it out to one – the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club Forest Committee’s San Gabriel Trails Crew’s monthly event on the Strawberry Peak Trail. It was my first time doing trail work of any kind – and although it was rough waking up so early I found the experience challenging, rewarding, and incredibly fulfilling.
I RSVP’ed with the Crew Leader and politely asked to bum some work gloves off of him (and pre-apologized for being a trailworking greenhorn) via email, then met up with the rest of the crew at the La Cañada Flintridge rideshare point. I loaded into the truck with a few other eager volunteers and drove up into the Angeles to pick up our tools and get a crash course in trailbuilding.
This was the first time I’d been on this trail since well before the Fire, and the first time I was able to fully see the effects of the fire on the central San Gabriels. The view was sobering, to say the least.
This particular crew had been working on this trail for some time now, so the stretch we were scheduled to help clear and repair was a few miles’ hike away. We put on our work gloves, hoisted our trail tools, and set off on toward Strawberry Peak, making sure to watch out for the dreaded poodle dog bush along the way.
When we reached Strawberry Saddle we had to stop for a moment – a large group of hikers had hiked up from the Colby Canyon trailhead and were marching to Strawberry Potrero and back. While the foot traffic actually helps freshly-built trails get established more on the landscape, the area is still closed to the public to help curb unnecessary erosion and to protect hikers from dangerous stretches of unfinished trail.
If there were a ranger among us, these guys could have been in more trouble – instead, we just told them they weren’t supposed to be up there and waited until everyone had gathered to send them back to the trailhead.
After they were sent on their way, we kept hiking toward the Potrero. After the fire, I could no longer spot the turn-off for Strawberry Peak’s unmaintained Mountaineer’s Route – one of the most difficult (and one of my favorite) trails in the Angeles. I can’t imagine that route is going to be in decent shape for quite some time, but the established trail was in remarkably good condition. This crew had clearly been hard at work – and while the landscape was still singed, the route looked fantastic.
Eventually we reached the beginning of the work area – a stretch of trail that was in OK shape but was becoming overgrown with the opportunistic post-fire colonizers. I figured this would be good territory for Trail Work Beginners, so I stayed behind with another volunteer to clear this area while the rest of the group spread out further down the trail.
A volunteer named Nate showed me the basics of the Macleod tool, which was used here to cut back some of the brush, widen the hiking trail to a consistent width, and create a gentle slope for water drainage to avoid erosion in the future.
The work isn’t complicated, but it can definitely get tiring. Still, after a while we had cleared a good chunk of overgrown trail and cleared the path for future hikers.
We wrapped up on this section of trail and kept hiking to the north slope of Strawberry Peak to join some other volunteers for lunch.
When we got here, I was very happy to see that a lot of the old growth conifers in the area had escaped severe fire damage – but it was also the first place I got a chance to see just how enormous the Station Fire Burn Zone was – almost everywhere you looked in the distance, all that remained were gray, denuded slopes.
After lunch we slowly worked our way toward the Potrero, cutting back plants, restoring washed-out trails, and in one spot even dislodging a giant boulder from the middle of the trail with the help of the professional trail builders who were already working in the area.
I will admit – when I got home I was sore, tired, and hungry – but being able to give back to the Mountains that have given me so, so much over the years more than made up for the soreness and blisters.
The rumor is that the Forest Service is hoping to re-open most – if not all – of the remaining Station Fire Burn Area sometime this Spring – and the more volunteers can help, the more realistic that goal becomes.
The San Gabriels Trail Crew is headed back to Strawberry Peak on Saturday, March 8th and they would love your help. Head here to RSVP and get more info – and maybe I’ll see you on the trail!