LAVA BEDS NATIONAL MONUMENT – The “Land of Burnt Out Fires” is rebounding after an estimated 31,000 acres was scorched by the Caldwell Fire.
Historically, Lava Beds National Monument has been known by the moniker “Land of Burnt Out Fires” because much of it was created by fiery volcanic forces. That includes the cataclysmic events that created more than 700 lava tube caves and a landscape shaped and fractured by massive lava flows.
The Caldwell Fire started with a lightning strike on July 21. As winds and storms increased the next day, it became a fast-moving fire, part of the July Complex. Now 97 percent contained, the Caldwell Fire is estimated at more than 83,261 acres. The fires burned more than 31,000 acres in the Lava Beds, more than half of the national monument.
“We couldn’t stay in front of it. It was too dangerous,” said Lava Beds Superintendent Larry Whalon. “It was a wall of fire ... It was really erratic fire behavior. It burned very fast.”
“Those guys,” he said, referring to firefighters, “were dancing with the fire. They know what they’re doing.”
The Caldwell Fire began near Lava Beds’ south boundary near Caldwell Butte, before burning into the adjacent Modoc National Forest and onto private lands on the park’s southern and western flanks near Tionesta and Newell. The park closed while the fire burned.
Although most of the fire crews have left the park, some are staying to help with clean-up efforts, such as the cutting and removal of hazard trees along park roads. Several signs were burnt and must be replaced.
Although areas of the park have been heavily impacted, Whalon hopes to allow visitors to enter the park to see and experience impacts of the blaze, possibly as early as next week.
The visitor center, park residences and Mushpot Cave, the park’s only lighted cave, were not damaged. Indian Well Campground, which was also undamaged, will not reopen until the water supply is determined safe for drinking.
Whalon returned to his residence earlier this week. He remained at the historic, stone-built home until the fire bore down. He was forced to evacuate and the house was wrapped in protective heavy foil to keep it safe from fire.
“I grabbed my two cats and away we went,” he said.
About 20 people, including seasonal and full-time staff, were evacuated from park residences. Most have returned. Whalon said initial efforts are focused on making areas of the park safe for tourists. He said visitation had been higher than usual before the fire because of the COVID-19 pandemic, noting “this was a good place to get away.”
He’s anxious to have visitors return.
“We’ll get visitors back in here,” Whalon said. “That’s the goal ... So they can see the burn and start to understand about fire and the landscape. It’s about renewal. If they come back next spring they’ll see wildflowers. This is fire resilient landscape. Plants will grow again.”
Whalon said he has read entries on the park’s Facebook page from people saying they’ll never return, something that causes him to shake his head.
“They’ll just miss out,” he said.
The northern section of the park will likely be the first to reopen, as soon as crews can cut down hazard trees, smother any lingering burn patches, check popular trails and inspect caves. The most popular caves, including Indian Well, Skell, Mushpot and along the Cave Loop Road, will be the highest priorities for visitor use.
“We’ll open them as quickly as we safely can,” Whalon said.
Whalon said areas south of park headquarters, which in many places were burned to fine ash and have numerous hazard trees, will likely remain closed for a longer time.
Park personnel are helping with numerous recovery tasks, from washing park vehicles to ensuring caves are free of smoke and safe for visitors.
Once Lava Beds reopens, Whalon said the usual $25 per vehicle entrance will be waived for an undetermined amount of time.
“We want people to come,” he said. “We don’t want to lose support for the park,” he emphasized.
About 60 percent of park visitors are from the Klamath and Tulelake basins and from nearby areas of Klamath, Modoc and Siskiyou counties.
To prevent possible artifact looting, law enforcement rangers are monitoring areas like Captain Jack’s Stronghold, which were prominent during the Modoc War.
Whalon said several of the park’s historic sites, including the Schonchin Butte Lookout, Medicine Flag and the Caldwell cabin, were not damaged.
“How I don’t know,” he said of the cabin, which is surrounded by heavy vegetation and is in an area that was heavily burned.
Areas near Caldwell Butte and the park’s lesser used south entrance are severely burned. A major task will be cutting and removing hazard trees without it looking like a clear cut.
A drive along park roads showed varied impacts of the fire’s widespread damage. In some areas the fire crossed the main park road and burned both sides, but in others the road served as a fire break with burnt vegetation on one side and untouched bunchgrass on the other.
“It will make a good contrast for visitors,” Whalon said of seeing immediate impacts of the fire and, in coming years, the landscape’s evolution and recovery.
Most of all, Whalon laments having to close the park, even for a few weeks,
“It’s more of a social toll,” he said. “It’s time lost with the visitors and the community. That’s time we’ll never get back.”