Fire then mud; Sierra highway remains closed

A rainstorm Sunday night extinguished a wildfire on southwest of Lake Tahoe yet washed ash and scorched soil across both lanes of Highway 50, turning water in the South Fork of the American River brownish-black.

The highway is to remain closed until at least Wednesday. A stronger storm is predicted to move in this morning and increase the potential for land burned by the Freds fire to slide into homes or onto the highway.

The road was closed last week after power lines came down and likely started the fire. By the time firefighters contained the blaze Sunday it had burned 7,700 acres of Eldorado National Forest land east of Kyburz.

"It depends what happens with this storm," said Leslie Case, a Caltrans spokeswoman. "If it does dump the way it is being predicted we could push the (road) reopening out even further."

The canyon that surrounds Highway 50 and the South Fork of the American River is steep and prone to wildfire and massive landslides. On Jan. 24, 1997, four years after the 24,000-acre Cleveland fire denuded the land above the river, winter weather set off a landslide. It sent two million cubic yards of earth across Highway 50 and into the river. The highway shut down for nearly a month.

That landslide occurred four miles west of the Freds fire. Because of landslide potential, the mandatory evacuation of 200 homes in Sliver Fork and Kyburz area remains in effect.

Overnight Sunday, erosion caused by the rainstorm left a 2-to 3-foot dirt pile across both lanes of the highway. It was the largest of several slides Caltrans cleared from the road by 12:30 p.m. Monday.

"So far everything is holding its own," said Sherry Bahlman, administrative analyst for El Dorado County Sheriff's Department. "There was no damage to any dwellings. We won't know anything more until after the storm."

The forest along the westbound lane of Highway 50 is not badly burned. Green trees still line the road, but the forest floor is charred and filled with smoldering stumps. The fire came close to homes along the highway at Kyburz, but no structures were damaged.

"The fire is 100 percent contained but not by any means out," said Barbara Rebiskie, U.S. Forest Service fire information officer. "Out of 7,700 acres, probably 60 to 65 percent of the land is completely nuked, for lack of a better term. No pine needles, not too much of anything."

The storm predicted today could bring wind gusts up to 70 mph. Such high wind could provide a small benefit to the Forest Service.

"Potentially it could help knock down limbs and pine needles and help with the runoff problem brought by the rains," Rebiskie said. "They are predicting two to four inches."

Not too much can be done to prevent ash and soil from entering the American River. Caltrans on Monday used a large vacuum truck to suck drainage along the highway. Workers installed tubes of straw around the drains to keep them clear.

"A lot of it will settle out," said Michael Kuehn, a retired hydrologist for the Eldorado National Forest. "And a lot of it will get trapped by the first reservoir behind Camino. The best way to keep water clean is to manage land so you don't have a catastrophic wildlife."

Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at


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