Flames on Buckingham Mountain during the Carstens Fire, Monday afternoon

Flames on Buckingham Mountain during the Carstens Fire, Monday afternoon

We live in a fire-prone area, and we’ve had two dry years in a row. On Sunday afternoon a fire broke out about three miles from our house in Mariposa. Named the Carstens Fire, it started from a neglected campfire and quickly spread, pushed by winds and fueled by dry brush, grass, and timber.

I first heard about the fire when my wife Claudia called me on Sunday afternoon. She was in Fresno, and had received a call from a friend about the fire. I went outside, and from our driveway could see smoke to the north, so I got in my car and went on a reconnaissance. The good news was that the fire was about three miles away – close, but not an immediate threat. The bad news was that it was already a sizable fire, and the wind was blowing it towards our house.

We packed the essentials in case we were evacuated: computers, hard drives, important papers, valuables, mementos, clothes, supplies for our dog and cats. But the wind seemed to shift a bit, taking the smoke, and the fire, more to the east. We heard about evacuations in the Jerseydale area, about five miles to the northeast of us, but evacuation didn’t seem imminent for us. After sunset we went on another reconnaissance drive, and were mesmerized by the beautiful, eerie, orange glow behind ridges to our north.

Smoke from the Carstens Fire over my office, Monday afternoon. Photo by Claudia Welsh

Smoke from the Carstens Fire over my office, Monday afternoon. Photo by Claudia Welsh

Monday started quietly, but by three in the afternoon the winds had picked up again, and from our driveway we could see a huge mushroom cloud of smoke to the northeast. Again we drove to a spot where we could get a better view, and saw giant flames leaping hundreds of feet into the air from the top of Buckingham Mountain (shown in the photograph above; the pines to the left of the flames are at least 75 feet tall).

The winds were taking the fire to the east, away from our house, so we felt safe. But we knew that houses in Jerseydale and Lush Meadows were right in the path of the fire. News reports that evening said that the fire was only 15% contained and had reached 1600 acres in size. By then 800 homes were under a mandatory evacuation order.

Yet late in the day the winds calmed, and the fire lay down. At our house, Tuesday morning was calm, with crystal clear blue skies, and no smoke in sight. Another afternoon reconnaissance revealed few signs of a fire. The inferno on Buckingham Mountain was gone, with only some wisps of smoke emanating from the far side of the ridge. By the end of the day, even though the fire was only 40% contained, the fire crews were talking about mop-up operations. Today the number of personnel on the fire dropped from 2,200 to 1,200. The fire isn’t out yet, but it seems that firefighters have a good handle on it. Thankfully no homes were destroyed.

Claudia and I have lived in these mountains for 30 years, and we’ve seen fires every summer. It’s unnerving to have a big wildfire spring up so suddenly, so close to our house, but it’s not a surprise, especially in this dry year. Fires are something you learn to live with around here.

It’s incredibly sad when someone loses their home in a fire, and even worse when someone is injured or killed. But I’ve lived in these mountains long enough to also appreciate how fire brings rebirth and renewal.

In August of 1990, nearly-simultaneous lightning strikes ignited the massive A-Rock and Steamboat fires on the western edge of Yosemite National Park. 45 structures were destroyed in Foresta, and many people lost everything they owned. Yosemite historian Shirley Sargent lost not only her home, but all her historical papers.

Our son Kevin was born during these fires. We lived in Yosemite Valley then, and the valley was closed to visitors for three weeks until the fires were contained. We had to get special permission from the park service to drive out Highway 120 – open only to administrative traffic at the time – when Claudia went into labor.

The heat from the A-Rock Fire was so intense that rock surfaces became fused in some areas. Yet the next spring flowers bloomed in abundance in these same places, and the oaks were crown-sprouting – shooting up new branches and leaves from their still-intact root systems. Within a few years a thick crop of oaks and dogwoods had sprung up in areas burned by the Steamboat Fire. The photograph below, which I posted last month, was made in one of these burned areas; the young trees, including the dogwoods, are Kevin’s age.

Dogwoods and ponderosa pine in fog, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Dogwoods and ponderosa pine in fog, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

In 2008 the Telegraph Fire reached within three miles of our Mariposa house. Our home was never really threatened, but the fire spread to 34,000 acres, and 30 homes were destroyed. And then the next spring some of the burned areas exploded with poppies, leading to the most spectacular bloom in memory in the Merced River Canyon. Even areas that didn’t get burned got a dose of fertilizer from the fire’s ash, leading to exceptional poppy blooms in 2009 and 2012.

Poppies and popcorn flowers blooming in an area burned by the Telegraph Fire in 2009.

Poppies and popcorn flowers blooming in an area burned by the Telegraph Fire.

I try to keep things in perspective. I know that fire is part of the natural cycle of life around here, and necessary for healthy forests and ecosystems. It can even be a boon to photographers who love wildflowers. But fires are also highly destructive. It’s only June, and we have a long, hot, dry summer ahead of us. Like many other people throughout the western United States, we’ll be on edge until the the fall rains arrive. Let’s hope the fire season isn’t as bad as it’s expected to be.

— Michael Frye

P.S. Thanks to all of you who wrote to express your concern about the fire, and wish Claudia and I well – we really appreciate that. I know many of my readers live in fire country, and I hope you all make it through this summer unscathed.

Also, Troy Montemayor posted an amazing photograph of the Carstens Fire from Sunday evening on Flickr.

Related Posts: Spring Continues in Yosemite; Redbud and Poppies; Merced River Poppies

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBooks Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, and Exposure for Outdoor Photography. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.