Crews balance firefighting and protecting a fragile ecosystem in containing California-Nevada blaze

This photo provided by the National Park Service Mojave National Preserve shows a tanker...
This photo provided by the National Park Service Mojave National Preserve shows a tanker making a fire retardant drop over the York fire in Mojave National Preserve on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Park Ranger R. Almendinger/ InciWeb /National Park Service Mojave National Preserve via AP)(R. Almendinger | AP)
Published: Aug. 2, 2023 at 9:10 AM PDT
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MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, California (AP) - Firefighters battling a massive blaze in California’s Mojave National Preserve on Tuesday faced the difficult task of stopping the fire without bulldozers and other heavy equipment that could damage the region’s famous Joshua trees and other sensitive plants.

Crews are using a “light hand on the land” approach to fight the York Fire, California’s largest wildfire so far this year. The goal is to reduce the impact of firefighting on the federally-protected landscape.

“You bring a bunch of bulldozers in there, you may or may not stop the fire, but you’ll put a scar on the landscape that’ll last generations,” said Tim Chavez, an assistant chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The blaze erupted on Friday near the remote Caruthers Canyon area of the vast wildland preserve, crossed the state line into Nevada on Sunday and sent smoke further east into the Las Vegas Valley. Flames scorched 125 square miles (323.7 square kilometers), though firefighters had contained 23% of the wildfire as of Tuesday afternoon.

The fire started on private lands within the preserve, but the cause remains under investigation. Less than 3% of the land in the 2,500 square mile (6,475 square kilometer) preserve is privately owned.

While it’s one of the largest national park units outside of Alaska and Hawaii, the vast majority of the Mojave National Preserve’s 880,000 visitors last year were just passing through on their way between Southern California and Las Vegas.

The territory is a varied desert landscape — mountains and canyons, sand dunes and mesas, Joshua tree forests and volcanic cinder cones — and features about 10,000 threatened desert tortoise within its boundaries.

Some of the preserve’s plants can take centuries to recover from destruction. It could take the pinyon-juniper woodlands alone roughly 200 to 300 years to return, while the blackbrush scrub and Joshua trees are unlikely to regrow after this catastrophic blaze, said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.

But the fire itself isn’t the only worry. On federal lands, with few people and little property at risk from flames, firefighters sometimes forgo certain equipment like aircraft, retardant, bulldozers and chainsaws to avoid harming the landscape. In the Mojave fire, they are not using bulldozers to build containment lines because the preserve is an ecologically sensitive area.

“You don’t disturb any more soil than you absolutely have to; you don’t cut trees unless they absolutely have to come down,” said Chavez, speaking about the tactics in general.

When there are ecological and cultural sensitivities at stake, firefighters negotiate with federal officials to determine what equipment can and cannot be used.

“It’s not just going out there and throwing everything we’ve got at it,” Chavez said.

In Nevada, the fire has entered the state’s newest national monument, Avi Kwa Ame, said Lee Beyer, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service. But Beyer said the number of acres burned within the boundaries of the vast monument in southern Nevada wasn’t yet known.

President Joe Biden established the monument in March, permanently protecting the desert mountain region considered sacred by some tribes. The area stretches more than 500,000 acres (202,300 hectares) and includes Spirit Mountain, a peak northwest of Laughlin called Avi Kwa Ame (ah-VEE’ kwa-meh) by the Fort Mojave Tribe and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A brief but heavy downpour early Tuesday helped firefighters in both states, but meteorologists warned of the potential for sudden and erratic wind shifts that could endanger crews later on.

If upcoming thunderstorms miss the flames entirely, crews could face unstable wind conditions — with gusts up to 40 mph (64 kph) — and risk having the fire blown back at them, said Clay Morgan, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Las Vegas.