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Head’s up for downed trees

January 24, 2012

Once a towering figure at Whitney Portal, this tree taken down by the wind storm on Nov. 30 is now a massive wad of roots. Visitors and hikers are urged to use caution around the downed trees forest wide. Photo by Doug Thompson

A massive wind storm has downed trees and caused major damage at some Sierra Nevada locations. A White Mountain Research Station weather station atop 14,000-foot White Mountain Peak recorded gusts in excess of 170 mph on Nov. 20, 2011. The clean-up of the damage could become a problem as well, with fewer federal dollars being spent on trail crews, which means fewer hands to help with the effort.
The wind storm from Nov. 30 ravaged the entire state, causing nearly 500,000 utility customers to lose electricity and leading several Southland cities to ask for damage related relief assistance.
In the High Sierra, some spots were hit exceptionally hard with downed trees in areas including Mammoth Lakes Basin, Reds Meadows and the Whitney Portal, home to the Mt. Whitney Trailhead, and Tuolomne Meadows. The damage is still being assessed but current estimates are that some 5,000 trees were downed, and many trees that are still erect have suffered root damage and are unstable.
Nancy Upham, public information officer for the Inyo National Forest, said she expects other pockets of damage to be found this spring and summer as folks venture further into the backcountry.
While there are no official area closures, the Forest Service is advising people should not enter areas that have been marked with yellow caution tape.
Folks venturing out in the woods are advised to use extreme caution and diligence, being aware of downed trees and especially snags or trees and limbs that have not completely fallen but are tangled with other trees.
The clean-up efforts have been concentrated at the Whitney Portal site, mostly downed trees near the store and pond, according to Doug Thompson, owner of the Whitney Portal Store. He said the cabins and campground were spared any significant damage.
Thompson said most, if not all, of the damage there was cleared before this weekend’s storm hit.
The Reds Meadow area seems to have been the hardest hit so far, Upham said. “The damage is significant.”
The damage at Reds Meadow is below the ground as well as on the ground. Upham said she has talked to people that have visited the meadows who say they can hear and feel the root systems of many trees buckling and straining, meaning those trees are in danger of falling at anytime from weakened root masses. She added that she was personally amazed at the size of many of the root wads of the downed trees, some of which are more than 10 feet across.
Upham said this weekend’s storm will shut down clean-up operations until the snow melts.
Clean-up operations will be a massive undertaking. Upham she knows there are spots along the John Muir and Pacific Crest trails that are impassable for human or stock.
The weak economy has forced cuts to federal budget items like forest trail crews. In the past few years as the economy has shrunk, so have trail crews. Upham said INF has already made requests for special funding.
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