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UPDATED: Close call for McLaughlin field station, directors' home in Jerusalem fire

By Dave Jones on August 18, 2015 in University

Update 7:30 a.m. Aug. 18: Cal Fire reports no changes in the Jerusalem fire's size (25,118 acres) or containment (90 percent) from yesterday.

Update noon Aug. 13: Cathy Koehler began her email this morning with a big “Whew,” one day after the Jerusalem fire closed in on a half-dozen homes in Morgan Valley just outside UC Davis’ McLaughlin Natural Reserve. Fire crews saved all of the homes — one of which belongs to Koehler and her husband, Paul Aigner, who are the McLaughlin reserve’s co-resident directors.

Flames did not get as close to the reserve’s field station about a mile and a half away from the Morgan Valley homes. “As for the reserve facilities, 360 degrees around the headquarters is still unburned,” Koehler said.

Wildfires have been lapping around and on the 7,000-acre reserve since July 30, putting Koehler and Aigner on the edge of their seats, constantly, watching and preparing as flames were at this edge or that edge of the reserve or Morgan Valley.

Koehler estimated the Rocky fire and Jerusalem fires together had charred 3,000 to 4,000 acres.

The crisis for homeowners culminated Wednesday (Aug. 12) “in a massive convergence of fire centers from the east, south and west,” Koehler said in her email. “All the chaparral to the east and north of our house burned, and pretty much all the grasslands in Morgan Valley.

“It’ll be a while before we feel threatened by fire again. All of our house and back compound is absolutely fine. Our water line supplying the house water is probably melted … need to investigate that.”

“Once we got back into Morgan Valley after fleeing the converging fire fronts, when most of the fire had simmered down, Paul and I quenched two grass fires burning at the toe of the hill that could have run up the hill and come near the facilities.

“There is still a chance that the various slopes around the field station will burn today; there are still a lot of small fire spots out there and the typical daily pattern is calm morning, rebuilding of heat midday and flareups in the afternoon.

“Just need to see what today brings. But the worst of it is over.”

Recovery is going to take a while, Koehler said. “A lot of fences to replace burnt posts on, melted water lines in the valley, road reshaping, and preparing for erosion prevention if the predicted El Nino happens.

“It is going to be ONE AMAZING wildflower year next spring!”

See Cathy and Paul's photo album of the Rocky and Jerusalem fires, on Facebook.


By Dave Jones

UC Davis’ 7,000-acre McLaughlin Natural Reserve, already singed by the Rocky fire, is now dealing with the Jerusalem fire in southern Lake County.

“Right now the fire is approaching the SE part of the reserve and likely will burn at least some of it,” resident director Cathy Koehler wrote in an email shortly after 7 p.m. Monday (Aug. 10).

This morning (Aug. 11), she did not any new information. "But by afternoon we all anticipating more fire action," she said in a tweet just before 10:30 a.m.

The Rocky fire began July 29 near Clear Lake and moved onto the McLaughlin reserve’s western section the next night, charring about 1,000 acres. Soon after, the fire exploded to the north and east, away from the reserve, growing to nearly 70,000 acres before fire crews gained the upper hand last weekend. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, estimated that crews today (Aug. 13) would complete lines all the way around the fire (containment stood at 95 percent at 7 a.m.).

McLaughlin became the second unit of the UC Davis Natural Reserve System — after Stebbins Cold Canyon — to be caught in the wildfires that are ravaging drought-plagued California this summer.

Last month the Wragg fire swept through most of the 576-acre Stebbins reserve near Lake Berryessa about 15 minutes west of Winters. The reserve’s popular hiking trails are closed until further notice. See separate story.

Coordinating with researchers

The McLaughlin reserve is farther from Davis, about two hours away, and used mostly for research. At least some research work involving plants and insects has already been lost.

Koehler and her husband, Paul Aigner, who also works as a resident director, stayed during the Rocky fire and are still there now. As she did during the Rocky fire, Koehler is asking researchers “to coordinate closely with me before they embark on a scheduled research visit because I will know if conditions change and situations become unsafe again.”

The Jerusalem fire broke out in mid-afternoon Sunday (Aug. 9) east of Hidden Valley Lake (on Highway 29 south of Clear Lake), grew to 5,000 acres overnight and more than doubled in size from Monday through Tuesday morning (Aug. 11), to 12,000 acres. Over the next two days the fire doubled in size again — or nearly so — to 23,500 acres.

The size now stands at 25,118 acres (with 90 percent conatinment) and Cal Fire estimated crews would have lines all the way around the fire today.

More than 2,000 people are fighting he fire, many of them coming over from the Rocky fire.

The Jerusalem fire was moving toward the reserve’s eastern section, specifically the southern boundary, five to six miles from the western section that burned in the Rocky fire.

One day after the Rocky fire came through, Koehler estimated it had charred “well over 1,000 acres.” After closer inspection in the days since, she said, she’s giving a firmer estimate of “about 1,000 acres.”

‘Oops, my field site disappeared’

“The fire burned through some research plots for which the annual data collection was finished, and those researchers will be coming out to locate the rebar/other nonflammable markers, and reflag them for visibility,” Koehler said.

One researcher, UC Davis graduate student Eric LoPresti, evacuated the reserve safely the day the Rocky fire broke out. He returned Aug. 6 to find some of his plant sites had been burned. Read his blog post with photos, “Oops, my field site disappeared: Lessons learned from the Rocky fire.”

He didn’t lose everything, and what he did lose he can repeat next year.

“Thankfully,” he wrote, “I didn’t lose my house, my pets, my vehicles or my livelihood — others did.”

Related research story: Southern plants move north to charred land

Undoing the dozer damage

Koehler said the reserve sustained no structural damage beyond some damaged fences and boundary posts.

Bulldozer damage is another story. The resident directors did their best to steer fire crews and their equipment away from sensitive sites, “but, on 7,000 acres, you can’t be everywhere at every single moment,” Koehler said. “There was some dozer activity in areas I would have preferred none, but other areas I managed to keep them out.”

She’s already met with Cal Fire to discuss how it will undo its dozer lines, to return the land to a more natural state and thereby prevent erosion. Cal Fire will also fix broken fences.

“Ecologically, fire is a part of the system, and I really look forward to seeing shrubs resprouting from root burls, and unique wildflower displays that are not seen except for a year or two after a wildfire,” Koehler said. “From an ecological perspective, it is going to be wonderful to see the land respond and go through its recovery.”

Cal Fire incident information: Jerusalem fire

UC Davis Natural Reserve System

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Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,