Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Caltrans Assists Alpine County with Washington Fire & Mudslides

When a small vegetation fire ignited on June 18 near Markleeville, a remote town nestled in scenic Alpine County, there was no indication that it would be anything more than a temporary inconvenience.

That didn’t deter Caltrans District 10 Area Superintendent Reynold Hysell from putting together an emergency response plan. A resident of the region, Hysell has seen these isolated fires blossom into full-grown conflagrations – particularly given the tinder-box conditions fed by California’s four-year drought.

The Washington Fire, named after the nearby Lady Washington Mine, bloomed from 350 acres on June 18 to 6,500 acres on June 19. It grew to 8,000 acres by June 22, and surpassed 16,000 acres by June 25.

Hysell’s preparation paid off, as Caltrans was able to instantly respond when the request came June 21 to close three state highways. While District 10 was closing portions of State Routes 4, 88 and 89, it was activating portable message signs, broadcasting on its Highway Advisory Radio stations, sending e-mail bursts to subscribers and utilizing Twitter and Facebook to spread word of the event.

“The closures were critical because they allowed fire crews to operate without distractions,” said Hysell, who is based in the Caples Lake Maintenance Yard and oversees a handful of other yards in the Sierra foothills. 

Caltrans manned these highway closures around the clock for nine consecutive days, allowing emergency service vehicles unfettered access as they hurried between hot spots and keeping the public clear of the fire.

“With the wildfire burning all of the vegetation off the hillsides, we began seeing rocks, boulders, shrubs and trees tumbling onto the road,” said Hysell, pointing out this his crews removed more than a dozen blackened stumps from the highways. “We had equipment positioned ahead of time, so when the call came in we could quickly respond. Keeping roads clear and firefighters safe were our priorities.”

By the time the Washington Fire was extinguished, it had burned through 18,000 acres and rung up a bill of $12.3 million, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The blaze was sparked by a lightning strike – and Mother Nature also helped extinguish the last remnants with a heavy thunderstorm.

Caltrans committed 31 maintenance workers and dozens of pieces of strategic equipment to the Washington Fire effort. Any Caltrans vehicle with a plow was a valued commodity, Hysell said, because they could efficiently clear the road of obstacles – keeping the path clear for fire trucks and vehicles.

“We had pickup trucks with plows and regular snow plows. Our people did an outstanding job working with emergency services,” said Hysell, noting many of his workers live near the fire zone. “For many of us, we felt we were protecting our families, our homes … our neighbors.”

Workers from maintenance yards at Caples Lake, Woodfords, Peddler Hill, Cabbage Patch and Sonora Junction joined the fight, as did a handful of workers from District 9. While some drove plows inside the fire zone, others ferried food and fuel, and operated wood chippers and portable message signs – and District 10 regularly updated Facebook and Twitter postings, keeping the public informed of the fire.

When the rain began to fall, and others started to rejoice over the downpour, Hysell was ready.
“I’ve been through three of these large fires, which started small, so the Washington Fire wasn’t my first rodeo,” Hysell said. “It’s not just fire that does damage. Mud creates havoc, too.

“The Washington Fire was burning through a lot of vegetation, so that meant the hillsides were going to be bare. With no roots to hold the rocks and dirt, we knew those would be rolling down onto the road.”

The barren hillsides quickly fell victim to chocolate-colored streams of water, creating gullies as gravity drove silt, rocks, branches and other debris onto the road and into culverts.

The first day of rain sent tons of ash streaming into roadside culverts, overwhelming these small ditches that help keep excess water from the road. The second day of rain, Hysell said, brought the mud. Eight days later, on July 10, the rains had halted and the mountain highways were close to pristine – thanks to Hysell and his crew of 43 maintenance workers that focused on storm cleanup.
During the week-and-a-half of rain, crews removed 1,000 tons of material from the road.

“Again, we were prepared. We knew the rain was coming so we had positioned graders, plows, loaders and other equipment,” said Hysell, noting that some equipment had to be brought up to Alpine County.

“We had three vactor crews, every one in the district, working up here to relieve pressure on culverts and drains,” said Hysell, noting that debris-laden water could have undercut the pavement and washed out part of the road. “I give a lot of credit to Chris Gemmill and his crew from Woodfords, as well as everyone else. This is an example of what can be done when we work as a team at Caltrans.”

Adding to the urgency of the cleanup was the pending Tour of the California Alps Death Ride, a popular bicycle ride that carries thousands of cyclists through usually scenic Alpine County on SR-4, SR-88 and SR-89. The event was on July 11, mere hours after the last of the mud, trees, rocks and other debris was cleared from the roads.

 Each successive day of rainfall, and each mudslide, posed a threat to the Death Ride. Caltrans’ maintenance crew had the roads clear of debris and in prime riding condition by the day of the event.

“Ninety-nine percent of the highway on the Death Ride route was immaculate,” noted Caltrans Supervising Transportation Engineer Rick Guevel, who took part in the grueling ride. “(It) was swept clear of any rocks, mud, debris. Nicely maintained pavement let you go as fast down Monitor Pass as you wanted, or as slow up Ebbetts Pass as the legs could carry.”

Guevel noted that the 2,500 cyclists in the Death Ride would never have known that a devastating fire, followed by dangerous mud and rock slides, had laid siege to this region the previous three weeks.

Working in tandem with Caltrans, whose goals include supporting a vibrant economy while responsibly managing California’s transportation-related assets, were the rural communities that count on the Death Ride’s economic impact. Folks from Bear Valley, Kirkwood, Markleeville and Woodfords deserve a firm handshake for the role they played in helping make this year’s Death Ride an economic success.

“It’s the biggest event in the community each year … all of the available lodgings on this side of the county are filled, the campgrounds are generally filled,” said Brian Peters, Executive Secretary of the Alpine County Local Transportation Commission. “The community groups also come together to make rest stops, group meals … and the Death Ride contributes money to these groups afterward. Being able to successfully stage this year’s ride was a significant economic benefit to the community up here.”

Communication played a role in that success, too. Permit inspector Alan Roberts provided updates to the Alpine County Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the ride, while the Public Information Office used Twitter and Facebook to keep residents, motorists and cyclists informed during the fire and slides.

In addition to the Caltrans staff that typically man the Death Ride, a cadre of crew members were on standby and ready to jump into action if loose material had tumbled onto the roadway during the ride.

“This year, the biggest challenge (was) the Washington Fire, thunderstorms and the environmental devastation,” said Paul McAfee, communications coordinator for the Death Race. “I know there were several thunderstorms just before our ride and your crews kicked some serious butt in keeping those roads open.”


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