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Talking about trails or recreation at all can seem trivial when thousands of people are fleeing their homes, walking away and wondering what, if anything, they’ll return to when one of the scariest wildfires to ever to burn through California ends its wrath. At the same time, trails and riding provide a sense of connection, a common link among neighbors in a small, tight-knit mountain town like South Lake Tahoe. Losing them hurts. And while the past week has been painful on many levels as the Caldor Fire closes in on homes and businesses and forces mass evacuations, the devastation to the forests is among the many layers of grief locals are processing.
“It’s just such a strong fabric of our community,” said Ben Fish, president and chair of the board for TAMBA, the Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association. Fish, along with his wife and son, evacuated their home in South Lake Tahoe on Monday morning. He’s been riding the trails in the Tahoe Basin for two decades, and has been at the forefront of TAMBA’s efforts to revitalize the South Lake riding scene, efforts that have worked. TAMBA is thriving with a full-time paid trails director, a crew of four seasonal trailbuilders, and approved plans to build 30 miles of new singletrack on Lake Tahoe’s west shore, below the Desolation Wilderness.
But, over the past week Fish has watched as the Caldor Fire has ripped through trails he and TAMBA have spent the past decade re-habbing and building. Like Corral, a flowing, feature-filled jump trail that was the first of its kind in the Tahoe Basin, and one of the first ever that the Forest Service devoted money toward for the design and build. Or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, a famously fun and technical trail at the cornerstone of South Lake’s trail network. There’s dozens more—Sidewinder, Connector, Armstrong, Cedar, Hawley Grade, Powerline, Cold Creek, Christmas Valley, Railroad, and many more outside of the Tahoe Basin, including Thunder Mountain, Horse Canyon, Castle Point, Silver Fork, Caples Crest, Cody Lake, Cody Meadows, Strawberry Creek, Pony Express, Lovers Leap, Sayles Canyon, Bryan Meadows. And still more elsewhere in El Dorado County, closer to where the fire started.
When we spoke on Thursday morning, the flames were nearing Star Lake, one of the area’s most stunning backcountry rides. Fish didn’t know the status of Lily Lake, a 2-mile trail that connects to trails off of Angora Ridge near Fallen Leaf Lake at the edge of the Desolation Wilderness that just opened in July.
“When it’s literally backyard trails you ride from the house (burning), that’s what gut-wrenching,” Fish said. “There’s all these emotions we’re going through. It’s been 10, 11 years of work and 20 years of riding these trails, all the work went into these, all the friendships made building and riding, having these crazy stupid events.”
As of Thursday, the fire was only 25-percent contained and had spread to more than 210,000 acres, threatening multiple ski areas and prompting a statewide National Forest closure, as it crept closer to Lake Tahoe. It’s a very active fire, and way too soon for Fish to know what rebuilding might look like at this point—nearly everyone from TAMBA is evacuated and their first priority is obviously safety, getting home and hopefully restoring some sense of normalcy—and it’s likely to be months before anyone can assess the depth of the damage and years to work toward recovery. There will be massive amounts of debris to clear, burned bridges to rebuild, and bulldozer lines through once-narrow singletrack to dig around.
- U.S. Forest Service Temporarily Closing All California National Forests
- California’s Lost Sierra Trails Burned in Devastating Wildfire
- Growing Caldor Fire Threatens Ski Areas
The 2007 Angora Fire does provide some reference point—that fired burned 3,100 acres in the national forest near South Lake Tahoe and it took nearly a decade to get to the point of actual shovels-in-dirt rebuilding. While that kind of timeline would be unthinkable now, and Fish hopes the Forest Service would fast-track some of the work, everything will still require environmental assessments.
But no one’s thinking about that right now. Right now, TAMBA’s focus is on taking care of the community. Fish says they’ll have the same silly Halloween costume ride they host every year, only this year it won’t be on Corral, just to keep everyone together. And when it does eventually come time to rebuild, the biggest priority will be put on the singletrack connections from local neighborhoods into the national forest.
Please visit TAMBA.org to stay-up-to-date on rebuilding efforts in the coming months, and to support TAMBA’s efforts. For more information on how to help the communities impacted by the Caldor Fire, go to https://edcf.fcsuite.com/erp/donate/create?funit_id=1792.