In Search of the Chariot Fire Burn on Mt. Laguna

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Setting out on Sunrise Highway. (All photos by Frank Gormlie)

By Frank Gormlie

Like many San Diegans I watched images of the recent Chariot Fire that began on July 6th destroy sections of Mt Laguna with great concern.  That mountain is one of my favorite spots in the county and I waited for the local media to give us an update on the damages that the fire caused to the natural habitat of the area along Sunrise Highway.  Not satisfied with the paltry amount of news of the burn since the fire was put out, I decided to head out there myself and do a photo gallery of the destructive havoc wreaked by a wildfire.

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First sign of the Chariot Fire burn on Mt Laguna along Sunrise Highway.

On Friday afternoon, August 2nd, I drove east on I-8, heading for Sunrise Highway – the road that traverses Mt Laguna.  With camera at the ready, I took notes in my search for the burn, holding my fears in check as I hurried towards the 6000 foot  plus ridges that separated the mountains from the desert.  There were sections of the mountain that I worried had been destroyed, as reports of the fire had it crossing Sunrise Highway, and eating its way west through pine forest.

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Here is where the fire jumped Sunrise Highway and entered the campground.

After having driven 33 miles, I could view the west side of the dark green Lagunas – and there was no burn in sight. This was promising, as I approached the off-ramp to Sunrise Highway, just after the 4,000 foot elevation sign. Still no sign of any burn.  As I pointed my vehicle up the road, Pine Valley lay below, serene and untouched by the violence of fire.

Laguna burn 8-2-13 SRHCross02One mile up the road there is the first large turn-out – and this is where I expected to see some burn.  I smiled at not seeing any tell-tale brown. I did notice how warm is was. Likewise, no brown was seen at the second large turn-out.  However, at mileage marker 16.0, I started to smell the burn.  This was still the scrub oak region of the mount, with yucca, cactus, and manzanita.

Laguna burn 8-2-13 SRHcross04Four miles from I-8, the pine trees were numerous. There was no one on the road. I began having trepidations about a beautiful stretch of trees, roads, where San Diegans for decades take their families to ride a snowy hillside, that it may have been burnt. When I reached that section, I breathed a sigh of relief – it was spared.  This was good news to me – not sexy news worthy of a scandal or headline down in flatland, but news nevertheless. I rejoiced that this area had been spared. It was clear by now, that the southern flank of the mountain had not been damaged.

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Small trees spared by the fire. Some day they may be the largest trees in the area.

More curious than ever, I continued my climb up Mt Laguna. Even though I hadn’t found it yet, the Chariot Fire had its statistics. Once contained, it had consumed 7,055 acres,  most of it in the rugged canyons that run up the eastside of Mt Laguna. The fire had eaten 149 structures, damaging another 9.  To contain it, it had taken 149 firefighting personnel from 4 fire engines. At one point, there had been more than 2,100 firefighters battling the blaze. The property damage and firefighting costs have been estimated to be about $11 million.

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Looking east at the devastation from Sunrise Highway.

According to the U-T San Diego on July 20, the Chariot Fire had begun during the afternoon of Saturday, July 6th, and had its origins “on the desert floor to the west of the Butterfield Ranch Resort, an RV park, campground and mobile home park on the Great Southern Overland Stage Route of 1849, county Road S2.”  By that Monday – the 8th – it was climbing up Mt Laguna eastern slopes – burning close to Sunrise Highway – over a mile from the origin.

Laguna burn 8-2-13 first03How did it start? The U-T reported that “State fire officials investigating the cause of this month’s Chariot fire are looking in part at a U.S. Bureau of Land Management Jeep that burned on the desert floor July 6, the same day the blaze began.”

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The Al-Bahr Shrine campground – or what’s left of it.

Cal Fire Capt. Mike Mohler told the U-T that there was an investigation into the cause of the blaze, and one arm of that is looking into “whether a BLM field officer’s vehicle may have accidentally started the fire after brush became entangled in its undercarriage, causing grass west of Butterfield Ranch Resort to ignite.” According to the U-T:

 A BLM spokesman said the Jeep burned, but it happened two miles from where the Chariot fire had already begun.

 “The vehicle fire was unrelated to the Chariot fire,” said Stephen Razo, external affairs director for the BLM California Desert District. “The law enforcement officer who was driving (the Jeep) was out in the area opening gates for fire responders, and at one point had gone near the Butterfield Ranch area to warn the store owners that they were possibly in imminent danger.”

Laguna burn 8-2-13 AlB04Back to my own investigation, I continued my journey up the mountain and finally reached a point on Sunrise Highway where I could look out in several directions. More good news, as I couldn’t see any burn on this southwestern sector of the Lagunas.  Soon after, I passed a fire danger sign, telling me it was “very high” today.

Laguna burn 8-2-13 AlB06

A boat – far from the water – is done for.

Then, not far from the 26.5 mile marker and just past the Horse Heaven campground sign, I found it. The burn – unmistakably now – had reached the road but had not crossed it.

Stopping the car, I began my photo shoot, trying to document the damage to the usually-scenic mountain sides.  Moving on, I came to the point where the fire had crossed the road and entered the forest on more level ground.  Driving down the road at the Laguna/ El Prado Campground, I could see that the fire swooped in to only about 150 yards of the campground, leaving the vast majority of the place totally untouched.

Many of the pine trees had been singed and weren’t necessarily dead, I thought to myself, hopefully.

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The desert outlook is barricaded. The deck itself appears to be okay.

Immediately next to the campground is – or was – the Al Bahr Shrine campground.  Walking into the site, I could see the devastation.  Nearly all  of the structures that had been destroyed in the Chariot Fire burned on July 8th at this camp – a camp that included an 87-year-old lodge, a dining hall, and more than 100 cabins and numerous outbuildings.

Yet, the Shriners were already on the mend, as I could see a brand new section of wood fence erected.

Laguna burn 8-2-13 desOv3Just down the road is the popular desert outlook – where on a clear day, you can see the Salton Sea to the east.  But this is still the area where the fire crossed Sunrise and the outlook was barricaded off from the public, as neighboring trees had been blackened. But the deck itself seemed to be in good shape, which I could see as I drove by.  Obviously, the Pacific Rim Trail down the hill had been burnt.

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Burn area on the west side of Sunrise Highway.

Continuing down the road, going north, I stopped to survey more damage, trying to capture the sharp contrasts between one side of the road with skeletons of brush with the other side still verdant and alive.

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Everything from the road east – except for some green areas – was burnt.

On one slope, small green plants were already bursting through the ashen dirt – a sign that life in the burn was already coming back.

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The blaze went up the slope at Kwaaymii Point.

The fire had approached one small picnic area at the Pioneer Mail park but had spared the park itself.  From a distance I could see how far the blaze had traveled up the slopes toward the popular hang-glider area at Kwaaymii Point, stopping just yards from the trail.

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This plant is already coming back.

By now, I was depressed at all the gray and black scenery. Much had been consumed; entire canyons had felt the roar and heat and were now gone. Hillsides to the east were entirely blackened with every available bush now destroyed.

The Chariot Fire had traveled west up to the edge of what remained from a devastating fire earlier this century, either the 2003 or 2007 fire.

After taking a total of 85 photos, I was ready for a break. When I reached the northern sections of Sunrise, my relief at all the green that now surrounded me was palpable. Continuing down Mt Laguna, I entered the flat area of Lake Cuyamaca, where evidence of the 2003 Great Fire stood like shrines to nature’s will.

Laguna burn 8-2-13 New2The firezones of Southern California will always be with us, yet individual fires can take the beauty from our fragile mountain areas of San Diego County with ease, in this time of heat, changing climate, and perhaps misguided fire policies of government.

My sadness of having witnessed first hand the devastation of the Chariot Fire stayed with me as I traveled into the land of people and buildings further down the mountain.

Yet the memory of how certain plant species jump back and even thrive in the burnt out areas of our locale helped ease the sadness. Nature is resilient – if we let it do its thing.





A lawyer and grassroots activist, I was finally convinced by Patty Jones to start the OB Rag, a blog of citizen journalists, after she got tired of listening to my rants about the news. Way back during the Dinosaurs in 1970, I founded the original Ocean Beach People’s Rag - OB’s famous underground newspaper -, and then later during the early Eighties, published The Whole Damn Pie Shop, a progressive alternative to the Reader.


  1. avatarCynthia says

    Good, thorough slide show! We too went out, the day after the fire, to check out the extent. We were pleased to see that Foster Lodge was spared, as well as the lookout you mention. Since 2003, all autumnal hiking has moved to Laguna on Wooded Hill and Big Laguna areas, so it was good to see that all those areas were intact.

    Cross-country skiing will have to skip some of the trails you mention, but will still be good at the other end of the road. Looks like a lot longer haul for Middle Peak to come back from the ’03 fire in the Cuyamacas. There, we have switched our hiking almost entirely to Cuymaca Peak since then.

    Thanks for the extensive list.

  2. avatarbob dorn says

    Nothing’s so cold as a burnt landscape. We can hope there might rise up enough interest to generate a small reforestation program. I’m glad you went, Frank Gormlie, so that I didn’t have to. You too Cynthia; that took some nerve.

    • avatarCynthia says

      I believe that the reforestation efforts with Jefferey Pines that have been attempted with some minor success on Cuyamaca Peak’s lower slope and the top of Middle Peak, were using nursery trees from Laguna. Thus, I would assume they will do the same for their own mountain, if they have the money.

  3. avatarNadin says

    You can’t see most of it from the Sunrise Highway. The burn was well established on both Cottonwood and Storm Canyons. Cottonwood is where it jumped the Sunrise, mm 20+, and we saw extreme fire behavior. Hell, Tom and I witnessed the changes in wind direction that were frustrating to fire fighters, while at Monument Peak shooting our photos, with both zoom and a wide angle lens, using two bodies and photographers. To get there you need a jeep…and most of that road is closed most of the time to lookie looks. We just followed a couple Batalion chiefs…after we all huddled over maps.

    That offered the best view of Storm Canyon, with the forest burning, including crown fires, towards Spring Peak. This included hot shot crews working near the near edge of the canyon, removing fuel by hand.

    Yes, when we cover these suckers, we carry topo maps. They are highly useful critters. And yes, we were all lucky, that while this was an October fire in the late Spring, like a few others, including Yarnell in AZ and the Power Station fire in Riverside CO..the Santa Anna’s, or fire generated weather, never got completely out of control.

    Though the use of VLATs is rare at best…for most people, those are the DC10s.

    Why we saw the behavior? It’s the topography…

  4. avatarlori saldana says

    Thanks for the report. I was up a few weeks ago, as soon as the fire was declared under control and we were able to do an inspection of the Sierra Club property, directly east of Shrine Camp.

    Many of the trees were burned but- miraculously!- the main lodge survived with zero damage. The smaller cabin burned to the ground, the water tank melted, and our water lines, connecting over the highway, will need to be replaced.

    Fortunately, we have insurance to help with much of the repairs and replacements that will be needed. And most importantly, the historic (1920s) Foster Lodge remains.

    Over the last few years, the Chapter has invested in repairs and upgrades to make it a more functional and fun place to visit. The volunteers cleared brush all along its perimeter- that apparently made the difference in its survival.

    We look forward to being “open for recreation” very soon.

    • avatarNadin says

      I could never answer the question if the water tank made it…thanks for that. Yes, we were asked.

      When Tom and I were up there, especially on Monday…it was rather smokey still…as in visibility was….low…I’ll be nice. Even on Wendesday it was not that safe yet.

      Would you believe it the smoke has *finally* left the jeep…it smelled like a bad barbecue gone bad…the fire coats are still a tad smokey

    • avatarNadin says

      I will be damned…we just did not recognize that as the water tank…I got a photo of it in the smoke.