The Dome Fire – Mojave National Preserve

I watched the weather radar from home, frustrated by doctor’s appointments and other domestic obligations that would keep me away from the East Mojave during one of the first thunderstorm events of what had been so far a “non-soon” Monsoon season (storms and rain failed to materialize across most of the southwest during the summer “rainy” season). I would be there soon. It was August 15, 2020. You might think that mid-August is no time to enter the desert, especially solo, but the high elevation regions of the Mojave National Preserve (MNP) sustain mild-enough temperatures (dependent upon one’s comfort levels) through most of the summer to make life possible here. Even better, the higher elevations of MNP are dressed in beautiful juniper and Joshua Tree woodlands, offering plenty of shade, rich and diverse plant life, and abundant wildlife. 

Appointments would keep me in town through the afternoon of August 19, and I would then depart for the Preserve to hopefully meet the next arrival of monsoonal moisture. On the afternoon of August 16, my stomach sank when I learned of the fire through a Facebook group. It began following a series of dry lightning strikes at 3:51pm on August 15 and was already burning quickly through Joshua tree woodland with unstable weather and high winds exacerbating the flames. In just over 24 hours the fire had taken 20,000 acres. 

From home, sick to my stomach over the fire, I kept a close watch on incident reports and social media and quietly wept inside. Early on the 20th I received word that road closures had been lifted and I quickly departed for the Preserve. 

It was named the Dome Fire (fire map) for its origin on the geologically unique Cima Dome, a symmetrical ten mile wide granitic bulge in Earth’s crust which is revealed in nearly perfectly concentric rings on the USGS topographical map. The fire had begun on the south and west perimeter of the dome and pushed east and northeast, directly over Cima Dome and Teutonia Peak, before roaring into the Ivanpah Mountains. Aided by improved atmospheric conditions, hundreds of firefighters, and air drops of water and Phos-Chek, the fire was mostly contained and extinguished by August 19. But not before the fire had consumed more than 43,000 acres of beautiful Joshua tree desert woodlands. In less than four days nearly the entirety of the Joshua tree forest on Cima Dome had burned. 

As I headed southbound on Cima Road, I could see clearly the burn scar on the dome from more than ten miles away, but it was a smoky day with poor visibility – hundreds of fires were burning throughout California and the west – and it was difficult to make out any details from this distance. Within just a few miles of the northern fire line the true scale of the fire became evident. I knew exactly how many acres had been declared burned but had not yet converted it to a relatable number: before me was 68 square miles of burned Joshua tree woodland. Not just any Joshua trees, but the largest and densest Joshua tree forest we know (they are found only in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah). I left the pavement at the northern fire line and in utter disbelief headed off onto a dirt road into the thick of it. I stopped and climbed atop my truck to survey the damage and what I saw appeared to be little more than a fire-blackened wasteland. All I could do was cry. 

It is important to understand why I would write this story or why I would cry over Joshua trees. This place is dear to me. I currently serve on the Board of Directors for the Mojave National Preserve Conservancy and for more than twenty years I have been exploring and adventuring in the Preserve and this was one of its most special gems. Plants, animals, and ecosystems are my interests and subjects. I can’t tell you much about contemporary culture, sports, or cinema but I can name plants by their binomial names and birds by their songs. In 2011, I was Artist in Residence at the Preserve and I concluded my residency with an exhibition at the Preserve’s Kelso Depot showing – that’s right – my Joshua tree collection. Sixteen years ago I rescued my dog, Mojave, from the Mojave desert just eighteen miles west of the summit of the Dome. We spent a lot of time here together, reveling in its extraordinary beauty, climbing the mountains that ring this beautiful valley, and studying its starry skies. She crossed the Rainbow Bridge just two and a half years ago and this fire reopened a bad wound. 

Unlike desolate alkaline basins which can feel uninviting and inhospitable, this is the most inviting portion of the desert, where Joshua trees and their shrub communities offer abundant welcoming shade and respite from a weary sun. This was the place that defied the typical expectations of the unwitting; where healthy jackrabbits,  cottontail rabbits, and antelope ground squirrels would flit between shrubs or sun themselves in the open; where choruses of coyotes would yip and howl by night; and where even a committed bird watcher would find delight in the resident Gambel’s Quail, wrens, phainopeplas, mourning doves, mockingbirds, and black-throated sparrows – a comforting place of diversity, abundance, and tranquility. 

For three days I walked through a charred landscape, revisiting familiar places and trees, only now dramatically altered by the fire – much of it a high intensity burn, with everything lying in its path completely consumed. The ground was scrubbed bare, left only with the black stains of complete combustion or white piles of ash. The wildfire had lapped at and barreled over large rock formations, reaching into crevices and caves and consuming everything: grasses, shrubs, trees, cactus, moss, lichen, even rat middens. Life seemed completely absent. These were incredibly difficult scenes to witness and process. Yet I felt I had an obligation to be here, to mourn and to grieve the tremendous loss of vegetal and animal life and an absolute transformation of a landscape I love, and to try to use my voice, my photographs, as a means to hopefully spark dialogues as to how to help better protect these trees and this landscape from the future threats they face. 

Many California ecosystems and plants are fire-adapted (or dependent) and fire can be highly beneficial to them, yet it’s deadly for non-adapted desert ecosystems like Cima Dome. Where a lightning strike might have formerly taken out one tree and its surrounding brush, the extensive destruction of the Dome Fire is the result of several factors, most significant being a changing climate. For those of us who spend a significant amount of time out of doors, drastic changes in the natural world present abundant signs of impending climate change disasters. California fires have become increasingly large and destructive and will only continue in this direction under the current climate regime – at least until humans find themselves willing to accept and tackle our most existential threat. 

I’m showing only a limited selection of photographs here. You can find here a growing gallery of my photographs from the Dome Fire aftermath; I hope you will return to the gallery for updates.

The Conservancy will be discussing with the National Park Service any possibilities for our involvement with rehabilitating the land. If you would like to be notified of ongoing efforts and potential volunteer opportunities, please consider following MNPC on its website or on Facebook

Resources

TAKE ACTION: Reduce Your Carbon Footprint (the reader may be confronted with inconvenient truths)

TAKE ACTION: Iconic Joshua Trees Need Your Help Right Now

#DomeFire feed on Twitter

INCIWEB Incident Reports and Maps

What the Fire Took Chris Clarke by Chris Clarke

L.A. Times: Mojave Desert fire in August destroyed the heart of a beloved Joshua tree forest

Dome Fire’s destruction of Joshua trees reminds us of climate change’s carnage

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Artist’s Corner: Desert Light Magazine

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I have an essay and two images in the January-February 2018 issue (Artist’s Corner) of Desert Light Magazine, a publication of the Mojave National Preserve Artist Foundation. You can find it on pages 12-13. Thank you for looking and reading.

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on Facebook.

Soda Mountains: VICTORY FOR THE MOJAVE DESERT! San Bernardino County Supervisors REJECT Soda Mountain Solar

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Updated 24 August 2016: VICTORY FOR THE MOJAVE DESERT! San Bernardino County Supervisors REJECT Soda Mountain Solar!

THANKS to all who pushed so hard to get San Bernardino County to deny the harmful Soda Mountain Solar project. This project has been hotly contested since 2009; first being fast-tracked, then de-prioritized, then sold, then bought by Bechtel, then back in the fast lane, then hamstrung by the City of Los Angeles’s decision not to buy the power, then approved by the Interior Department, then sold to Regenerate, and yesterday (Aug 23, 2016) denied by the San Bernardino County board of Supervisors. Hands in the air!

Tens of thousands of Americans opposed this project, as did scientists, the National Park Service, and damn near the entire California desert. This was a remarkable doing and could not have happened without the concerted effort of thousands of community voices and leaders. The National Park Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife stood up against this bad project. So many organizations said no. Pushing back on this bad project draws a line in the sand that bad projects don’t get a free pass to harm our parks, our wildlife, or our communities.

SB-SupPlease thank San Bernardino County Supervisors Lovingood (email), Gonzales (email), and Rutherford (email) for their powerful votes. As our walk was not easy, neither was theirs – the Unions pushed really hard. The incredible organizing done by Sierra Club and the Alliance for Desert Preservation, in addition to so many groups and activists, made a huge difference. Thank you!

Many people thought this couldn’t be accomplished. A special place lives to fight another day. A wise decision and a good day for Mojave National Preserve, for our communities, and our desert. Forget Texas – don’t mess with the California desert!

Previously published:

On February 12, 2016 the Obama Administration demonstrated great leadership and foresight with its designation of three new National Monuments in the California desert (Sand to Snow, Mojave Trails, Castle Peaks). A mere eight weeks later, on April 5, 2016 – this same Administration lost its mind and approved a hotly-contested solar project on previously undeveloped California desert wildlands.

The Soda Mountain Solar Project has been contested from the get-go: By scientists, biologists, current and former National Park Superintendents, public stakeholders, and numerous other organizations and individuals who provided a plethora of logical and scientific reasons (via written comment submissions and during public meetings) why this project should not move forward at this location. First and foremost: the proposed project boundary is a mere 1/3 mile from the boundary of the Mojave National Preserve. Allow me to say it again just in case you didn’t catch it: Our federal government approved an industrial project a mere one-third of a mile from one of our third-largest National Park unit. Among numerous other significant impacts, this project would severely threaten the lives and migration patterns of bighorn sheep who reside and move through the Soda Mountains.

Please have a look at the photo heading this post. Proponents of this project claim that they have mitigated visual impacts of the project from within the Mojave National Preserve by removing from development lands north of Interstate 15. My photograph illustrates either the Bureau of Land Management‘s (BLM) disingenuousness or that it knows much less about the land we have entrusted it to manage than does this landscape photographer. That’s a two way view: the Kelso Dunes, Providence Mountains, and Granite Mountains of the Mojave National Preserve can all be seen in the background. If one places themselves in these locations inside the Preserve post-development, solar panels will fill in the background. Are these the views we want and expect from inside a unit of our National Park system?

During public and private meetings over the last few years, Bechtel was urged to take this project elsewhere where it could not destroy previously undeveloped desert and seriously threaten wildlife. Guess which finger they held up in reply?

During public and private meetings over the last few years, the BLM and Department of Interior were asked to not permit this project to move forward where it would destroy previously undeveloped desert and seriously threaten wildlife – there are better and more sensible options. Guess which finger they held up in reply?

This solar proposal has no power purchase agreement and the City of Los Angeles has stated that they will not purchase power from this project due to its environmental impacts.As Chris Clarke points out in this KCET article, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and San Bernardino County are doing a better job at protecting the California desert than the Bureau of Land Management (an agency entrusted by the public to protect our public lands in the public interest. Note public interest, not corporate).

The Center for Biological Diversity  suggests that “a recent report identifies nearly 1.5 million rooftops throughout Los Angeles County that could be used as solar power generators that would create 19,000 megawatts from rooftop solar. The total rooftop solar potential for the city of Los Angeles is more than 5,500 megawatts (more than 15 times what the Soda Mountain solar project would generate), which could power the city on most days since the highest-ever peak in Los Angeles was 6,177 megawatts.”

Dear President Obama: Why would you protect but then sign-off on the destruction of my beautiful Mojave Desert in the span of only eight weeks? Visitors come from around the world to tour and enjoy these vast and unspoiled landscapes.

Given that this project ignores and defies directives set forth in the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (six years in planning) and given the massive science against and opposition to this project, I am left wondering who took the bribe? 

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

Read more on the following pages:

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For information and photographs, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on Facebook.

STOP the Proposed Soda Mountain Solar Project!

Proposal zone from the tip of the proposed North Array. This entire view would be covered by PVT panels. In the background is the Mojave National Preserve.

Proposal zone from the tip of the proposed North Array. This entire view would be covered by PVT panels. In the background is the Mojave National Preserve.

Dear Readers and Friends of the California Desert, I urge your action against the proposed Soda Mountain Solar Project, south of Death Valley National Park and proposed for development immediately adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve. Renewable energy projects should be smart from the start, but the proposed Soda Mountain Solar Project is THE poster child for inappropriately sited renewable energy projects which threatens the Mojave National Preserve, bighorn sheep migration corridors, desert tortoise habitat, the endangered tui chub pup fish, and world-renowned scenic view-sheds. With your help we can help the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to understand the full range of impacts this project proposes for wildlife, viewshed, the Mojave National Preserve and adjacent Wilderness Study Areas. Together we will ensure that the BLM does not blindly approve this harmful project (what’s wrong with “green” energy?).

The Soda Mountain Solar Project is a proposed 350-megawatt photo-voltaic electric power generating plant proposed on 4,397 acres of public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) some six miles southwest of Baker, California and immediately adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve  (yes, immediately adjacent to a

Proposal zone from the southwestern tip of the proposed South Array. This entire view would be covered by PVT panels. In the background is the Mojave National Preserve.

Proposal zone from the southwestern tip of the proposed South Array. This entire view would be covered by PVT panels. In the background is the Mojave National Preserve.

National Park unit). The application by Soda Mountain Solar, LLC requests a right-of-way authorization to construct a solar field on 2,691 acres, a project substation, an access road, operations and maintenance buildings, and to realign approximately 3.3 miles of Rasor Road. The Sierra Club’s Desert Report recently featured a piece on this proposal which outlines this tragedy in the making. Author Sid Silliman explains that “[t]he consequences for the Mojave National Preserve are of special concern because the project threatens not only the particular resources and landscape that Congress mandated to be protected by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, but the very integrity of this treasured unit of the National Park System.”

Overview at sunset of the proposed Soda Mountain Solar Project. Photographed from the northern tip of the proposed 'North Array' along Blue Bell Mine access road. The Old Dad Mountains and Kelso Peak of the Mojave National Preserve can be seen at the far left edge of the frame, Interstate 15 runs horizontally through the frame (big rigs are visible), with existing transmission lines visible on the right side of the frame.

Overview at sunset of the proposed Soda Mountain Solar Project.

I urge you to please submit your comments by March 3, 2014 to:

Jeffrey Childers, Project Manager
BLM California Desert District Office
22835 Calle San Juan de Los Lagos
Moreno Valley, CA 92553

jchilders@blm.gov

Please share this post freely with others who care about our National Parks, protecting desert wildlife and views, and with those who care about holding renewable energy developers responsible for not harming our world-famous deserts (tourists travel from around the world to take in our vast and timeless desert views). PLEASE HELP STOP the Soda Mountain Solar Project!

ADDITIONAL READING:

Soda Mountain Solar Energy Project (comprehensive overview) Basin and Range Watch

Soda Mountain Solar Project Facts National Parks Conservation Association

Don’t Let Clean Energy Projects Stain National Parks The Sacramento Bee

Will A Proposed Solar Power Plant Near Mojave National Preserve Defeat Good Planning?National Parks Traveler

Mojave Desert not ideal for massive solar project The Press Enterprise

Public troubled with 4K-acre solar project near Mojave Preserve The Civic Bee

Relocate the Mojave National Preserve’s planned Soda Mountain Solar Project: Guest Commentary San Bernardino Sun

Retired National Park Leaders Oppose Soda Mountain SolarKCET.ORG

Overwhelming Opposition to Soda Mountain Solar Project The Desert News Post

Here we go again: Soda Mountain Solar ProjectHi-Desert Star

Saving the Mojave from the solar threatLos Angeles Times

BLM advances solar project that will harm bighorn sheepHigh Country News

L.A. won’t buy power from Mojave Desert solar plant, after all Los Angeles Times

MOJAVE IS A MAGICAL PLACE. LET’S PROTECT MY FORMER HOME Park Advocate

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on FacebookGoogle+, and  Twitter.