Our Starry Skies Adventure workshop turned out to be a little more adventurous than we thought. Just before we left our home in Mariposa last Saturday to head for the workshop I checked the satellite photos online. The Rough Fire near King’s Canyon National Park had been sending smoke north, so I was keeping an eye on it. But my last-minute check revealed a new smoke plume just to the southwest of Mono Lake. Uh oh. Our workshop was based in Lee Vining, on the west shore of Mono Lake, only a few miles from that smoke plume.
I could see the smoke from this new fire on one of the Yosemite webcams. I found that it was called the Walker Fire, and that it had started the night before near Walker Lake, but I couldn’t find any up-to-date information about the fire’s size and location. When Claudia and I left home about 3:00 p.m. the Tioga Road (Highway 120) through the park was still open. But when we got to Tuolumne Meadows we found that the fire had closed the road between the eastern entrance of the park and Highway 395. What do we do now? We decided we had to drive around over Sonora Pass and check out the fire in person. That meant five extra hours of driving, and a long night ahead of us.
By the time we got to Lee Vining it was 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning. The fire seemed pretty quiet, but we knew that the following afternoon the winds could pick up and fan the flames. Aside from the smoke, we were concerned that the fire could force Lee Vining to be evacuated, which would present a serious problem. The workshop was scheduled to start at 1:00 p.m. on Monday.
Claudia and I debated whether we should cancel the workshop, try to find an alternate location, or go ahead as planned. We hated to cancel it, as we had a group of people anxiously looking forward to it. The next morning we started making phone calls, looking for another venue for the workshop further south in Bishop or Lone Pine. But not surprisingly, we couldn’t find a hotel with enough rooms for everyone and a meeting space. Besides, it was smoky down there too, as those places were closer to the Rough Fire.
On the other hand, the Walker Fire was being attacked aggressively from the air with helicopters and air tankers, including a DC-10. We thought the fire might be contained quickly, and forecasts suggested winds would push the smoke to the south, so we could probably find areas out of the smoke – or we could always photograph the fire itself. In the end we decided to go ahead as scheduled. We gave all of the workshop participants as much information as possible about the fire and what might happen, and most of them decided to take a chance and go ahead.
Sunday afternoon the winds picked up, and the fire become more active. That evening I photographed the fire from nearby vantage points to the south, and it was spectacular. Late in the evening it looked like firefighters performed a firing operation (a back burn) near Highway 395, which caused the fire to flare up again.
The next day the fire seemed quiet again, though there was a lot of smoke. But when we went to breakfast at the famous Whoa Nellie Deli they told us the Tioga Road was open into the park. And that afternoon it became official: the road was open. The fire was still burning less than a mile south of the road, but firefighters must have been confident that they had a handle on it, or they wouldn’t have opened the road. Things were looking up.
We ended up going to Olmsted Point in Yosemite Monday night, South Tufa at Mono Lake on Tuesday night, and Bodie on Wednesday night – all exactly as we planned. Skies were remarkably clear all three nights.
After all the anxiety created by the fire it felt surreal to be out there, with clear skies and everything going just as planned, as if the fire had never happened. We ended up having a great time – and feeling very lucky.
These photos were taken when the fire flared up Sunday evening, the night before the workshop started. I’ll post some images from the workshop itself soon.
— Michael Frye
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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael 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.
Michael, your workshops always appear to be very exciting for one reason or another. 🙂 Glad everything turned out as it did. Thanks for the great images of the fire.
Well we did have the Rim Fire to deal with two years ago. Other than that I can’t think of any drama comparable to what we dealt with in this workshop. Frankly I could do without the drama! 🙂
Incredible it worked out with so much going on. Great images!
Yes, we were lucky – thanks Mike!
Thanks to Michael, Claudia and Robert, I had a wonderful time learning about night photography. The students were great too and very friendly. Until next time another workshop.
I’m glad you enjoyed the workshop Everett! It was great having you with us, and I’m glad everything worked out.
Always fun to read your posts. Appreciate hearing more about the fire as you were able to shoot it. I was in Yosemite from Thursday night through Sunday Afternoon. Was at White Wolf when the fire started and was returning to Tuolumne Meadows when I saw a huge white cloud in the sky in that direction. Stopped to shoot some photos and it became apparent there was a fire – brown smoke below the white “clouds”. I got back to TM around 5 PM and asked in the Visitor’s Center – they had first heard about 1 PM and it was in the Inyo – just outside the park. Around 6 PM they had closed the pass, but it turned out only for a couple of hours, then they opened it and caravaned cars over. Too bad you didn’t wait – could have saved several hours – but it’s a gamble. I posted my shots on FB and my flickr account. Here’s a link to my FB post: https://www.facebook.com/greg.rodgers.503/posts/10153497945191698
Yeah, we also heard that they opened the road to convoys later that night, so perhaps we could have waited. But we also needed to get to a place with an internet connection to find out as much as we could. They led convoys through intermittently on Sunday too, but going up from Lee Vining there was no guarantee that you could get back!
Micahel: This is remarkable and I’m glad everyone got out safely. The fires are all over the news and it amazing you could be in a position to take such dramatic images. well done!
Great shots, Michael! Love the one with the helicopter – felt like I was there and was breathing the smokey air unfortunately.
Alternate routes over the Sierras to 395 are not many. That must have been a rather anxious time for you and Claudia worrying about the workshop, the participants, and last minute adjustments that need to be made. Glad it all ended well. Just came back from Incline Village – very little smoke in the Tahoe area, nothing like last during the couple of years thank goodness.
Thanks Carol! And I’m glad to hear that there isn’t much smoke in the Tahoe area. It all depends on the wind.
You are so correct that it “all depends on the wind”. Here in Colorado the smoky haze from the California and Washington fires has settled along the Front Range from south of Colorado Springs to Fort Collins and beyond. It is very reminiscent of the Hayman Wildfire in Pike National Forest back in 2002 as well as our more recent burns. Today, winds are predicted to help ” clear the air”. Kansas, beware!!
Jim GH I
Sorry to hear that the smoke has settled in around you Jim, but then again, the winds will surely change. Photographically it’s sometimes better to be close to a fire, because if the wind blows the smoke south, you can move north, and vice versa. Plus you can photograph the fire itself. When the fire is far away, and there’s just a general haze, there’s nothing much you can do about it.
You just wait for the westerly winds to blow it away. In the meantime, the haze creates a nice layering effect to the foothills and some interesting sunsets. Unfortunately, it can be hard on the lungs and the eyes! 🙁
Yeah, those layering effects can be quite nice, and the sun becomes an orange ball as it sets (or rises) through the smoke. Any unusual conditions can create interesting opportunities.
Glad you had no problems holding your workshop and the fire was contained. I am ssuming the fire did not affect Parker Lakeor any of the Aspen groves around there? I hope no more fires occur in the Eastern Sierras. Really looking forward to fall color in a month or so!!!
Thanks Wayne. No, the fire didn’t affect Parker Lake. It started at Walker Lake and moved north. I’m sure some aspens were burned in the fire, but no major aspen groves were affected.
Hi, Michael: Wow, amazing shots. They brought back memories of the Rim Fire when I was in your class and we had to work around the smoke. This sounded a lot more dicey, and I’m glad everything worked out as it did with the Rim Fire.
Thanks Robin. Yes, this event brought back memories of the Rim Fire to me too, but again things worked out. Things have a way of doing that.
Dear Michael, I know you promise your students an interesting time, but I’m sure this was a little more interesting than you had planned! We were just up in Banff and were concerned about smokey haze as there had been wildfires up there a couple of weeks before our trip. Fortunately, there were some heavy rains the first day we were there.
Those fires made for some very interesting images!
Vivienne, as you say, it was a little more interesting than we had hoped for. 🙂 But it all worked out. I hope you had a good trip to Banff; I haven’t been there in a long time, but need to go back.
I just saw this, Michael, great stuff! It’s been such a fiery summer in the west, and it’s not over yet. I got to have my own close encounter in Idaho two weeks ago: https://frishmanphoto.wordpress.com/2015/09/04/ablaze/ I’ve seen some active burns before, but that was the first time I’ve spent the night next to one!