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California’s largest fire of 2022 never quite grew to a tenth of the size of 2021’s nearby Dixie fire, but that isn’t to say it did not have an oversized impact.
Over 46 days spanning a portion of September and October, the Mosquito Fire burned more than 76,000 acres of forest from the town of Foresthill up to the edge of the Sierra Crest near Olympic Valley, costing state and federal fire agencies $181 million in firefighting salaries and resources. Beyond the monetary cost of the fire, far greater impacts were felt in the surrounding communities, including the loss of 78 structures and residual effects to livelihoods. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has focused a lot of its efforts on recreational infrastructure because of its economic importance in the area. The USFS has since performed an internal study to quantify the impacts of the wildfire, and related these findings to local stakeholders including residents and businesses.
Existing within the boundaries of the Mosquito Fire is the Western States Trail, specifically, the 12.4 miles between Last Chance and Michigan Bluff, often known as the “canyons” of the Western States 100 course—one of the most well-known sections of the course. This relatively short section of trail ascends 5,226 feet and descends 6,406 feet, cresting at Devil’s Thumb, traversing over 36 switchbacks, and passing Deadwood Cemetery that hosts the remains of the miners and Chinese laborers who built this trail, once among a litany of trails developed by the Washoe people that lived on this land, in the late 1850s.
Thankfully, for those chasing a golden ticket entry or already accepted into this year’s race, the staff at Western States has been communicating with the USFS since the beginning of the blaze and have been “working full-time on getting the trail open ever since,” said Craig Thornley, Western States race director. Thornley says an agreement has been reached between the race and the USFS, to leverage private funds in order to repair the trail and open in time for the late June race. This is anything but the normal or anticipated result, Thornley said.
“Both races I direct, the Waldo 100K and Western States, were impacted by wildfire in 2022, and that was in a relatively light fire year,” he says. “What most race directors appear to do is take the approach of waiting for land managers to tell them when the trail can be used again. In this case we were front and center, asking: ‘what do we need to do to get this open?’ If we hadn’t, it could be several years until the race would be feasible.”
This work had, up until the December holiday break, included a number of volunteer days aimed at adding water bars and other trail fortifications to reduce erosion impacts from typical winter rains. These volunteer days were made feasible, in large part, thanks to the quick action of the USFS Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) teams, which typically address wildfire areas to fell hazard trees and create plans for restoration work.
Wildfire had impacted this trail in the past, most notably during the American Fire of 2013, lending the Western States team experience as to how to ensure the event would go forward. Also, the 2008 Western States 100 was canceled because of poor air quality, due to numerous wildfires in the area.
Based on the efforts made last fall, Thornley believed the trail would re-open in plenty of time for the race this June. But that confidence was shaken at the end of December, when a number of atmospheric rivers crossed the Pacific Ocean and dumped heavy precipitation in California.
On the evening of January 5, 2023, a forest order was issued by the Tahoe National Forest, noting extreme damage to the burned sections of both Western States Trail and Mosquito Ridge Road, a key artery to access aid stations in this stretch. Due to the damage, the USFS issued an access closure until December 31, 2023, which would threaten the possibility of this year’s race happening. In most cases, this closure would last until the USFS accrued funding and fully repaired the trail and road, which typically takes two to four years, with orders being renewed each calendar year, depending on the forest region budget.
A New Approach
The Western States team is confident that the order will be reversed once trail maintenance is completed. However, due to USFS budgetary constraints, this trail maintenance will be funded by private donors through the Western States nonprofit structure, on the behalf of the government, a strong partnership and plan between event promoters and land managers.
While it is impressive that the Western States staff has been able to, in all likelihood, stave off race cancellation or delay, there is a larger question to ask: what do individuals, race promoters, and sponsoring brands do under the face of rising hazards in the present and future?
In California, the Santa Ana winds have driven wildfires followed by rain events for centuries, but climate modelers warn that the number and severity of wildfires of the past several years, as well as the frequency of high-severity extreme precipitation events, highlight a worsening climate trend.
No longer is climate change and public land management solely impacting individual communities for discrete periods of time. It is also placing a serious threat to the start line of arguably the most lauded trail running event in North America. The burning of one trail, which will likely require hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore and treat for public safety, is forcing the hand of major race promoters, and the entire outdoor industry, to consider where climate change fits in their yearly budgets.
While the question as to what Western States runners should expect this year is clearly front and center, most see the writing on the wall—the industry must adapt to and address climate change. Fortunately, Western States will almost assuredly happen this year, but only because of the immense work ethic, generous donor giving, and long-term community building of the event staff.
While Western States has the funding to avert disaster this year, both Canyons Endurance Runs by UTMB and the Tevis Cup equestrian event are held in April and July, respectively, on the same trails. There is no guarantee the trail will be open and usable as early as April, or in good condition for horses by July. At the time of publication, UTMB staff were in communication with Western States and land managers to find solutions for Canyons in 2023. However, no official statement has been issued at this time.
Of course, these three races alone are not the first to be impacted by both natural disasters and a limited federal budget for trail restoration. For example, in the last decade, Santa Barbara’s Nine Trails has seen the same cascading disaster chain. Such complications have also been experienced along trail systems in Flagstaff, Arizona, Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and across the Pacific Northwest.
Thornley credits the decade-long relationship building with the USFS, California State Parks, and private landowners for their ability to quickly avert closure, noting the volunteer trail work days and private fundraising the event has done in collaboration with these land managers over the years. Western States has acted as an exemplar for other events to emulate in the coming decades, under a shifting climate system. However, one must ask whether other trail running event organizers have considered the time necessary to build these relationships with land managers, and to make plans accordingly before the next natural disaster strikes. The future of the sport depends on the urgent planning and trust-building of these various stakeholders.