San Rafael Wilderness in Danger

Historic Structures Threatened along Manzana Creek

Manzana Schoolhouse was the site of backcountry learning for several dozen of the pioneer families.
Ray Ford

Sunday, July 8, 2007. 6 pm.
Vital statistics: 7300 acres burned; cost $5,100,000

Zaca Fire continued its steady move toward the San Rafael Wilderness overnight, with flames reaching within a half-mile of Manzana Creek.

Wheat Peak looms behind the Schoolhouse and was named after the homestead leader Hiram Preserved Wheat.
Ray Ford

“We’ve had an inversion layer covering most of the lower Manzana with smoke,” Rich Phelps, a Forest Service spokesman at the Incident Command Center, told me, “so we aren’t sure how close it is to the creek right now.”

“It’s a whole other ballgame should it cross the Manzana,” he added. “There’s nothing to stop it once it reaches the Hurricane Deck area.”

Earlier this morning, conditions had been favorable: lower temperatures, less wind, and higher humidity. Thus far the fire has been fuel driven, with huge amounts of brush being consumed as the burns its way through chaparral that’s been untouched since the 1966 Wellman Fire.

The Saturday evening fire boundary is marked in red on the map. The blue areas shown represent fire activity through Sunday morning – predominantly north towards the Sisquoc River and east towards the Manzana. Note the brown "x's" with the circled "H" above the blue. This represents a heli-attack location and bulldozer line. The dozer line extends east to the Schoolhouse.

“Today and tomorrow will be pivotal,” another fire official said.

Looking at the map, I can see why. The dozer line marked by the brown X’s follow the path of the Sisquoc River. If the fire crosses the river anywhere along the Sisquoc, there is a danger it may spread all the way to the crest of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Holding this line is critical.

Dabney Cabin dates back to the 1930s and is made of alder logs from the Manzana Creek area.
Ray Ford

To the east, the advancing fire line represented in blue is close to the Manzana. Holding this may be even more critical. Should the fire cross the creek, it will most likely take out Dabney Cabin and possibly the John Cody homestead on its way up to the even steeper and more rugged Hurricane Deck area.

However, establishing a foothold along the Manzana is almost impossible. With few escape routes, tons of bone-dry brush, and nothing but rough wilderness trails for passage, there is no way to establish any kind of containment line.

View across the Hurricane Deck area. Steep, rugged and roadless, bulldozers won't be of any value here.
Ray Ford

Should the fire breach the Manzana and reach the Deck, all bets are off. The 15-mile-long wedge of upthrust sandstone is aptly named – rough, rugged, and wild – the kind of country where hand crews and mechanical equipment have little value .

As I head off to dinner, I wish the firefighters my best. They are in a race to keep more than 100,000 acres of some of the finest wilderness from going up in smoke.

6:12 p.m. UPDATE: At about 4 p.m. today, a helicopter fighting the Zaca Fire went down at the Figueroa Helibase on Figueroa Mountain Road. The crash occurred during lift-off, according to the Forest Service, and the two people on board suffered minor injuries. The helibase is now shut while an investigation ensues. For an additional report and more on-scene photographs of that incident, go here.

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