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Patch Letter: Horse Rescue Shows Brown Mountain Fire Road Weaknesses

Patch reader Lori Paul says Brown Mountain Fire Road's spotty conditions may have led to the horse rescue Tuesday above Altadena.

Patch reader Lori Paul responded to the cliff rescue of a horse and rider in Angeles National Forest at Brown Mountainway and El Prieto Mountainway in Altadena on Tuesday: 

This incident highlights a critical issue. Ironically, the lack of grading and other maintenance on the Brown Mountain Fire Road where the horse fell over the side was a topic of lengthy discussion at the Altadena Crest Trail Restoration Working Group (ACTRWG) meeting last night. 

We learned that the U.S. Forest Service has apparently "downgraded" the unpaved, historic Brown Mountain Fire Road (Truck Trail) from a well-maintained dirt road to a roadway suitable only for "high clearance" vehicles. A few months ago Brown Mountain Fire Road lost its designation as a "Level 3" fire road and became a "Level 2" roadway (as defined in the "USDA Forest Service Handbook" under Road Maintenance Levels 7709.58,10,12.3). That level permits vegetative encroachment, surface irregularities, and other impediments to vehicle use.

Unbeknownst to us, Brown Mountain Fire Road is no longer a "fire road" at all.  The U.S.F.S did not announce this abdication of maintenance to trail users or local residents who depend upon the old fire road as an emergency evacuation route:  See the attached .pdf map.  In fact, the District Ranger assured me in a recent e-mail that the road would receive needed attention.

That said, the Forest Service is not even maintaining Brown Mountain Fire Road at Level 2 roadway standards, either, since it has become too overgrown with flammable weeds (such as star thistle and grasses) and blocked by a culvert wash-out to be driven by many high clearance vehicles, including fire trucks. Two fallen trees may block the road soon. See photos below. Only a few years ago, I drove from Rising Hill Road, through Millard Canyon Campground, and back to my own neighborhood on Chaney Trail, via Brown Mountain Fire Road with no difficulty in a 2001 Subaru Outback. I don't think I could do that today, even with all-wheel drive.
Fires that ignite below or adjacent to neighborhoods in steep areas may block off escape for residents except via the old Brown Mountain Fire Road to the north of homes. See those neighborhoods circled on the attached map. If small fires that ignited below these neighborhoods in recent years had not been quickly extinguished, the resulting wildfire could have roared up into the steep canyons and local residents could've become trapped... except for their ability to exit on the Brown Mountain Fire Road. Unfortunately, that road is no longer usable by passenger vehicles. Also fire trucks and crews have used the Brown Mountain Fire Road on the ridge as a fire line and observation post for fighting wildfires in Angeles Forest and preventing those fires from burning down into homes and Millard Canyon campground... and perhaps down deeper into developed Altadena.

Photos were presented at the trail meeting last night that illustrated Brown Mountain Fire Road in a deteriorated state with downed trees, broken culverts blocked by weeds and shrubs, and water drain wash-outs. What trail users and local residents wonder is why the U.S.F.S. made the unilateral decision to "down grade" this fire road without public input or consulting local law enforcement and County fire crews?  If budget constraints are the issue, why were other options for maintaining the Brown Mountain Fire Road not explored before downgrading its status? 

Some assert that the Forest Service determined that the road was "no longer needed."  Brown Mountain Fire Road was very important during the Station Fire and past fires (such as the Altadena Fire in 1993). The poor condition of this historic fire road affects local safety on several levels, including equestrians, as we found out yesterday when the horse went over the edge.  As one person on the scene stated [in the Over the Bars Mountain Bike Club forum]:

"I was doing a quick Brown El P [ El Prieto Canyon ] loop today when I was flagged down by a guy on the trail. His horse had gone over the edge of the trail on Brown Mtn heading down towards  El P. The horse went over just after a sharp right hand turn through a wet and muddy stream, and a flat muddy section of trail, with tall grass on both sides. The grass hid the nearly vertical drop at least 50 ft to the bottom.

As stated by a mountain biker who attended the Altadena Crest Trail Restoration Working Group (ACTRWG) last night:

This is one of the spots between Millard and the saddle where I thought it would be sketchy for horses. We had a cyclist or two (at least) go off there as well since the fire. If the Forest Service is not going to maintain this as a fire road, we should get formal permission to convert to a trail, and try to get some trail type maintenance on it. My personal opinion is it is safe to walk your horse across the wash out at the El Prieto stream, and also safe from the Arroyo up to the saddle, but there are several sketchy spots from the stream crossing up to the saddle...

As stated on the ACTRWG meeting announcement:

 

The lack of maintenance for the Brown Mt. Fire Rd (from Millard Cyn Campground parking lot west to the top of Rising Hill Rd), which provides access for emergency fire trucks and crews as well as evacuation routes for local residents, is on the agenda for this meeting. This is an important issue not only for trail use, but because the unpaved Brown Mt. Rd provides a critical fire line between the Angeles Forest and hillside homes. In recent years, that road was passable by passenger car and County Fire Dept. vehicles; however, it is gradually approaching impassable due to rock fall, shrubs, saplings and weeds now that neither the USFS or L.A. County takes responsibility for its maintenance.

The U.S.F.S., perhaps with assistance from Los Angeles County agencies who protect hillside residential neighborhoods and County Trails (such as the Altadena Crest Trail), needs to resume full maintenance of Brown Mountain Fire Road (Truck Trail) as an unpaved road that is safe and usable by passenger vehicles, L.A. County and U.S.F.S. Fire Trucks, and, yes... horses and other recreational trail users.

What do you think of the horse rescue and the Brown Mountain Fire Road conditions? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Paul Anthony Buehler November 15, 2012 at 12:08 AM
Welcome to the majority of the fire roads in the ANF, There are half dozen w/in 10 miles that are in worse condition. I have learned to live with the reality that they are relics of a past era. Why? First, fires are no longer fought predominantly from these roads like they were in the 50's through 70's. When most of these roads were built, maintained, and accessible to the off-roading public, they were used to build all sorts of things from lookouts and radio towers and power poles and cutting ridge-line fire breaks. Most of this work is now done by helicopter, and so, these roads are mostly left to degrade into hiking and biking trails, often maintained by volunteer groups. Second, a Subaru Outback hardly qualifies as a high ground clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle, and in dry grass conditions, its low clearance is just as likely to ignite a grass or brush fire (as happened in the Williams fire a number of weeks ago). Third, and most importantly, the FS and LACo Fire have had their funding repeatedly slashed for decades, and the result is that fire road/truck trail maintenance is at the bottom, bottom, bottom of the "to do" list. Don't forget, the entire management scheme of the ANF has changed since the Station fire, and staffing is at historic lows. Camp sites and picnic sites remain unrepaired and/or closed. The majority of the regions trails are in severe disrepair, are under biologic closure, or seem to have been abandoned as unsafe and unusable.
Paul Anthony Buehler November 15, 2012 at 12:08 AM
So, given the extent of the areas fire damage and the grim and long term funding cuts to the LACo Fire and the FS, it seems a more than a bit disingenuous to complain about horse or personal auto access on a "fire" road that is no longer used as a fire-road.

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