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.