05/05/2022

Feeling the Burn: Worsening Wildfires Threaten Sustainable Access

By Laura Snider

At the end of August 2021, the Caldor Fire made a stunning jump across the spine of the Sierra Nevada and began a menacing run toward South Lake Tahoe.

The fire—only the second in recorded history to cross from one side of the Sierra Nevada range to the other—forced the evacuation of around 50,000 people and ultimately destroyed more than 1,000 structures. And while the neighborhoods around South Lake Tahoe were largely spared, much of the nearby climbing, including Lover’s Leap, was not.

Linville Gorge, North Carolina. Ancestral Lands of the Catawba, S'atsoyaha (Yuchi), and Tsalaguwetiyi (Cherokee, East.) © Lynn Willis of High South Creative

The extent of damage to local climbing resources isn't immediately clear after a fire. The area burned by the Caldor Fire was placed under a U.S. Forest Service closure that didn't expire for months. Locals were left to make their best guesses based on burn area maps, vantage points from open roads, and word of mouth to assess what climbing areas have burned. Whatever the case, when an area is finally surveyed and the score is known, there will almost certainly be years of hard work ahead to mitigate the damage and reopen the areas for climbing.

Lover’s Leap and surrounding crags are not, of course, the first climbing areas to burn, and wildfires have always burned through the Sierras. But wildfires are worsening in the Sierra Nevada region and across the West, and with the increased risk of wildfire comes an increased risk to climbing resources. The weight of this increased threat—the dread that each year the smoke-choked fire season will drag on longer and longer and the helplessness as another crag or another gateway community is threatened by flames—is now impossible for the climbing community to ignore.

“It’s a pretty intense topic, especially for those of us who live in the West and are feeling the rapid increase in the intensity of the fire season every year,” says Access Fund Executive Director Chris Winter. “At Access Fund, one of our most fundamental values is a deep passion and respect for the places we climb and feel so connected to. Our role is to continue to help the climbing community to grapple with what it means to have those places face such significant threats as wildfires. We can’t withdraw and stick our heads in the sand. Our community has to step up into that conversation.”

"We can’t withdraw and stick our heads in the sand. Our community has to step up into that conversation."

Access Fund is deeply engaged in thinking about what that conversation looks like and how the organization can bring its existing expertise in stewardship, policy work, and local community support to effectively address the impacts of wildfires on climbing.

The Age of the Megafire

Fires have presumably burned climbing areas as long as climbing has existed. In the last decade alone, fires have burned Mount Lemmon and Jacks Canyon in Arizona, Echo Cliffs in California, and Rumbling Bald in North Carolina, to name a few.

Fires can play an important role in maintaining healthy forests, but in recent decades, fires, especially in the West, have become larger and more intense. Take 2020, for example. In California, wildfires burned more than 4 million acres, setting a new record and more than doubling the old record of 1.7 million acres burned, just a few years earlier in 2018. In 2021, about 2 million acres had already burned by the end of September—about the same amount that burned by that time in 2020—with months left in the fire season. Of California’s 10 biggest recorded fires of all time, eight have happened since 2017, with five burning last year. The No. 2 spot on the list will likely go to this year’s Dixie fire, which is the only other fire besides the Caldor to burn from the western slopes of the Sierras to the eastern.

Linville Gorge, North Carolina. Ancestral Lands of the Catawba, S'atsoyaha (Yuchi), and Tsalaguwetiyi (Cherokee, East.) © Lynn Willis of High South Creative

The 2020 fire season also devastated other parts of the West. In Colorado, all three of the state’s largest recorded wildfires occurred last year, and two of those—the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires—burned into Rocky Mountain National Park.

Wildfire Growth Since 1973. Source: Wildfire research led by Anthony Westerling at the University of California Merced

The recent horrific wildfire seasons are not one-offs. Instead, they’re part of a decades-long trend of increasing wildfires that began in earnest in the 1980s. According to research led by Anthony Westerling at the University of California Merced, the area burned by wildfires in the West has been steadily increasing. In the decade between 1983 and 1992, the area burned increased by 640% compared to the decade before. The following decade (1993-2002), the increase over the 1970s was 911%, and by 2003-2012, the increase was 1,271%. The research, published in 2016, did not analyze the most recent decade, when record-breaking fires burned across the West. The wildfire season has also grown, from an average of 138 days between 1973 and 1982 to an average of 222 days between 2003 and 2012.

What’s driving this increase? There are multiple factors that are likely playing a role, including a legacy of fire suppression and other land management strategies that have caused fuels to build up on the forest floor. However, the primary driver, according to scientists, is climate change. The West is getting hotter and drier with spring snowpack melting earlier, and the result—more flammable fuel—is directly linked with fire size and extent. A 2016 study found that climate change is responsible for half of the increase in fuel aridity in the West since the 1970s and a doubling in the area burned by fires in the West since 1984. As human-caused climate change continues, we can expect wildfire seasons to continue to become more extreme.

Fraying The Fabric

Climbers in the West aren’t likely to be surprised by the dire statistics about increased wildfires. They’ve been living it season after season.

“It’s been years of getting worse and worse. Starting about eight years ago, there’s been at least one month a year when the smoke has been so bad that it’s hard to go outside, and the fires burning in the surrounding areas made it hard to climb where you want,” says Jen Dawn, president and treasurer of the Tahoe Climbing Coalition. “Having this fire start in our own backyard—burning through our boulders and our crags—it’s ominous and it’s dark and it’s scary.”

After a burn area is re-opened and local climbing organizations finally have a chance to assess the damage, there are a number of factors they must take into account. For starters, fires can impact the rock itself.

“We’re talking about rock, so the good news is we’re not going to lose it to a fire,” says Katie Goodwin, Access Fund policy analyst and California regional director. “What we’ve observed is that the impacts really depend on the intensity and length of heat exposure to the rock and the type of rock.”

Caldor Fire damage at Lover’s Leap, California. Ancestral lands of the Central Sierra Miwok and Washoe. © Chris Binder

Anecdotally, an intense fire can cause granite to exfoliate. Climbers reported several inches of the rock shedding—along with some bolts—after Elephant Knob in the western Sierras burned in 2002, for example. Even if damage to the rock seems relatively mild, fire can impact bolts and other fixed hardware. Fires can melt out glue-in bolts and stress steel, but determining the actual damage to bolts at a particular crag is difficult. There’s just not much data about fire and bolts, and since the type of bolt used to protect climbing routes is not standardized, there are also a lot of variables. At Mount St. Helena, a Bay-area crag in California, locals chose to replace all the bolts in the areas with the most severe burns after a fire swept through in 2017, just to be on the safe side. Such undertakings are expensive, both in money and in labor.

Caldor Fire damage at Lover’s Leap, California. Ancestral lands of the Central Sierra Miwok and Washoe. © Chris Binder

Beyond the rock and the fixed gear, fires can introduce a number of other objective hazards, including erosion and standing dead trees, or snags, which are often a major factor in a land manager’s decision to keep an area closed. Climbers discovered that the fire that burned through Rumbling Bald in North Carolina in 2016 scorched the soil that was holding boulders in place on ledges and top-outs, causing instability and rockfall.

The impacts of wildfires on climbing can also reach far beyond the area that is actually burning. Wildfire smoke can seriously impact air quality hundreds of miles away from the fire, creating conditions that are, at best, unpleasant and, at worst, dangerous for people climbing outside. Heavy smoke forced the closure of Yosemite National Park in September 2020 when the air quality index hit 785 (AQI)—anything over 300 is considered a health emergency—even though there were no major fires actively burning in the park. At times during the Caldor Fire, Lake Tahoe registered the worst air quality in the world, with an AQI of nearly 450.

Extreme fire risk can also lead to the proactive closures of large swaths of public land. In October 2020, the U.S. Forest Service barred access to its lands up and down the Colorado Front Range, citing “unprecedented and historic fire conditions.” This order effectively closed a number of heavily used crags, including Boulder Canyon. This fall, a similar order went into effect when the U.S. Forest Service closed every national forest in California for a couple of weeks in September. Large swaths of California forests were also closed in 2020.

Fires also deeply impact the gateway communities that climbers gravitate to. “The impact to the community is so massive,” says Dawn, speaking about South Lake Tahoe. “The fire has been terrifying and uprooting. We had to leave our homes, and we all know people who have lost everything. There’s a community trauma we’re experiencing together.”

For many gateway communities near climbing, climbers have become an important economic driver as well as an integral part of the community itself.

“Wildfires affect us in so many ways, and one is the fraying of the fabric of these communities,” Winter says. “We want to be there for our community. As climbers, we’re really good at pulling together in times of adversity, and we’ll have to do that as we face the future.”

More than Building Trails

The role that Access Fund and the larger climbing community must play as we face that future is broad, and it ranges from the immediate (How do we help restore access to a recently burned crag?) to the long-term (How do we advocate for smart climate policies?).

“As the climate continues to change, there are going to be more wildfires and it’s going to affect more climbing areas.”

Access Fund Stewardship Director Ty Tyler emphasized that land managers and nonprofits like Access Fund must deepen their partnership to address these threats. “As the climate continues to change, there are going to be more wildfires and it’s going to affect more climbing areas,” Tyler says. “We need to be prepared to step up and support land managers, and they’ll need to see us as part of the solution. Their jobs are hard enough, and these partnerships are critical.”

Access Fund’s Conservation Team builds a stone staircase at Fun Rock in Mazama, Washington. Ancestral lands of the Nłeʔkepmx Tmíxʷ (Nlaka'pamux), Syilx tmixʷ (Okanagan), and Methow. © James Q. Martin

Groups like Access Fund can get critical work done in recreation areas in the aftermath of a fire. This includes assessing the stability of trails and base areas and working on restoration projects, all with the goal of promoting recovery from the fire and getting climbing areas reopened as safely and as quickly as possible. Nonprofit partners could also help reduce future fires by assessing fire risk in and around recreation areas, building sustainable trails that can be used as fire breaks and for firefighter access, and helping get the word out to climbers and other user groups about local fire risk and safety closures. Programs like the Access Fund-Jeep Conservation Team are already up and running and positioned to be a tremendous resource for land managers who are confronting the enormous challenge fires pose for public lands across the country.

“But we don’t just want to build trails,” says Access Fund Vice President for Policy and Government Affairs Erik Murdock. “We want to make sure our climbing areas don’t burn down in the first place.”

“We don’t just want to build trails. We want to make sure our climbing areas don’t burn down in the first place.”

Linville Gorge, North Carolina. Ancestral Lands of the Catawba, S'atsoyaha (Yuchi), and Tsalaguwetiyi (Cherokee, East.) © Lynn Willis of High South Creative

Access Fund is working with its allies in Washington, D.C., to actively advocate for the Civilian Climate Corps, a program proposed by the Biden administration that would reimagine the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s for a new era. Like the original, the new CCC would put hundreds of thousands of young people to work, but this time their aim would be combating climate change.

In an executive order, President Joe Biden says the initiative will “aim to conserve and restore public lands and waters, bolster community resilience, increase reforestation, increase carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protect biodiversity, improve access to recreation, and address the changing climate.”

“We want to be part of the movement to mitigate climate change,” says Murdock, who has been working hard to ensure that legislation that funds the new CCC would provide a pathway to include Access Fund Conservation Teams, which would focus in large part on recreation infrastructure.

At a policy level, Murdock also sees a role for the Access Fund in supporting new funding mechanisms and programs that address wildfire prevention and education as well as the firefighting response. A new era of wildfires requires rethinking old strategies for preventing and fighting fires, Murdock says.

Another critical function for Access Fund in the future will be educating climbers about what responsible recreation looks like during and after fires. The unpredictable nature of wildfires means that climbers will have to maintain flexibility in their plans so they can avoid destinations with fire or heavy smoke. To preserve access, climbers also need to heed the inevitable closures. And finally, it will continue to be important to think about when and how to visit the local communities affected by wildfires.