Illegal campfires sparking fear of California wildfires


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As darkness recently fell over a campsite in a well-hidden valley in the San Bernardino Mountains, the soft click of a laptop keyboard on a portable picnic table was joined by the sound of footsteps stomping on the undergrowth as two US Rangers walked forward and said, in turn, “Hi.”

Rangers methodically scanned the tiny, secluded corner of the Holcomb Valley wilderness in which Jonathan Hong, 31, of Beverly Hills, was composing the opening chapters of his first sci-fi novel. It didn’t take long for the rangers to find what they were looking for.

Nodding at a nearby mound of charred wood surrounded by boulders the size of a softball, Ranger Chon Bribiescas asked, “Is that a campfire over there?” “

“Yes. It’s just a little one,” Hong replied nervously, adding, “It’s not mine.

Forest protection officer Chon Bribiescas throws stones from an illegal ring of fire at a scattered campsite.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Instantly and silently, Bribiescas and Zachary Behrens got to work. With their bare hands, they measured the heat of the campfire – it was cold – and then started picking up the stones and throwing them into the forest.

“We cannot allow campfire rings like this to become reusable,” Behrens said, spreading dirt over the ashes with his boots.

Moments later, they were back in their pickup trucks and hurtling down a one-lane dirt road through Holcomb Valley, about five miles north of Big Bear Lake, on a night patrol to clear out illegal campfires. .

As Southern Californians increasingly flock to the mountains for relief from a recent heat wave and months-long coronavirus restrictions, hundreds of illegal campfires have sprung up at scattered campsites. Unlike serviced campsites, which offer serviced campsites, washrooms, and often fire pits or barbecues, scattered campsites are simply wooded areas where visitors pitch a tent.

So far this year, forestry officials have documented a 270% increase in illegal campfires in the San Bernardino National Forest, the most densely populated and used national forest in the United States. That’s an increase from 189 between January and August in 2019 to around 700 during the same period in 2020.

Under current fire restrictions, building a campfire is only permitted in fire rings provided by the forest service at certain developed recreation sites. The same goes for wood or charcoal barbecues.

But the problem persists in the middle of a fire season unlike any other. As the pine air filled with the roaring sounds of vehicles clawing for traction along the severely rutted dirt roads leading to Holcomb Valley, northern California was in a state of emergency as firefighters battled over 560 lightning-fueled wildfires across the state that claimed the lives of at least seven people, destroyed hundreds of homes and burned more than a million acres.

Tensions arise every day as thousands of vacationers flock to this popular resort community waiting for an alpine escape from clean mountain air, cool forest trails and cozy campfires.

Instead, they are greeted with a grim reality: At 1 p.m. on a recent Friday, all 13 campgrounds in the San Bernardino chain were full and traffic along the main road to the community was blocked due to attack on SUVs and four-wheel-drive vehicles. drive vehicles loaded with coolers, bicycles, fishing and climbing gear, and barbecues.

The head of public affairs of the Forest Service, Zach Behrens, welcomes campers at a scattered campsite.

Forest Service Public Affairs Officer Zach Behrens greets campers at a scattered campsite in Holcomb Valley, CA.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

“These visitors have two choices,” said Behrens, 39. “They can turn around and go home, or find a suitable place to camp for free in, say, Holcomb Valley.”

Many tourists think the effort is worth it. They traveled over one hundred miles in their own vehicles to get to Big Bear Lake, a city of 6,000 year-round residents and summer crowds of over 100,000 on Labor Day weekend. Today is their day.

But due to increasing tourist pressure, “weekdays are now like weekends and weekends are like major holidays,” Behrens said. “And with the influx of visitors, there has been an increase in illegal campfires throughout the forest.”

Forestry officials are embroiled in the problem statewide, as an increasing number of summer travelers avoid planes and cruise ships and place more value on forestry recreation near their homes, blurring the lines between urban life and deep woods.

    Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer Tyler Smith searches for evidence of illegal camping while on patrol

Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer Tyler Smith searches for evidence of illegal camping and campfires while on patrol.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

On a recent Friday in the San Bernardino Forest, rangers discovered 11 illegal rings of fire. In most cases, nearby campers insisted they had no idea who built them. Either way, Bribiescas left a written warning that read: “Friendly reminder: no campfires or charcoal barbecue. Thank you.”

At sunrise the next morning, they suffocated a few dozen more.

Then there was Andrew Dewlaney, 28, a college physical education teacher struggling with online teaching, and his wife Coree, 29, a nurse in the emergency room at John F. Kennedy Hospital. Memorial, who feared their hard-earned weekend in Holcomb Valley was about to end abruptly when the rangers approached and in turn said, “Hello there.”

It was 109 degrees in the shade with high humidity when they left their home in Indio, Calif. That morning, they said. The traffic jam they encountered at Big Bear Lake that afternoon was an overwhelming disappointment. After several hours of unsuccessful searching for available space in a Forest Service campground, they ventured into Holcomb Valley.

The good news: They had a permit to use a propane fireplace filled with lava rock they had brought in to provide a smokeless semblance of a wood-fired campfire. The bad news: the device rested on a thick bed of highly flammable pine needles.

Forest protection officer Chon Bribiescas, right, removes the needles while campers Korea, left, and Andrew Dewlaney watch.

Forest protection officer Chon Bribiescas, right, picks up needles from the ground as campers Korea, left, and Andrew Dewlaney watch. The Dewlaney’s of Indio brought to their scattered camp a ring of propane-fueled campfire that is legal for use in the forest.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

But the rangers were nice. Bribiescas used a rake to remove needles from a patch of soil about five feet in diameter. “You should be good to go now,” he said.

Overall, the rangers encountered little resistance as they patrolled around a campfire under a large sky filled with owls and a glare of stars. Whether they had prevented a potentially catastrophic wildfire was a puzzle.

For Behrens, Bribiescas, and Smith, it was all part of a day’s work in Southern California’s urban national forest.

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