[Update, 6/14/13: The trail has re-opened, according to John Miller, a Forest Service spokesperson.]
A 2,850-acre fire in Riverside and San Bernardino counties is burning an area so remote that only one trail closure has been issued, but you might want to rethink hikes between Big Bear and Joshua Tree National Park anyway. The Hathaway Fire, which started Sunday on the Morongo Reservation near Banning, has roared uphill on the south slopes of San Gorgonio Mountain in the days since, filling the desert with thick smoke from Landers to the Coachella Valley.
The fire, sparked Sunday morning by unknown causes in the Hathaway Canyon area north of Banning, is burning in thick chaparral and beetle-damaged forests on the rugged, nearly inaccessible slopes off Snow Peak in the San Gorgonio Wilderness. The fire's potential for spreading is rated as "high," and containment isn't expected until next week. Over 1,300 firefighting staff are working to contain the blaze, with 48 crews working the scene, aided by nine air tankers and seven helicopters.
To date, only one closure has been announced due to the fire: the short, steep, and popular Vivian Creek Trail that runs from Forest Falls to the summit of San Gorgonio Peak. All other trails and roads remain open at this writing, but that could change at a moment's notice.
Flames from the Hathaway Fire were visible Monday from spots as distant as Joshua Tree and Temecula. In addition to the damage to bark-beetle-ravaged pines and chaparral habitat, one structure has been destroyed on Snow Peak and four firefighters have been injured.
Residents of a wide area downwind of the fire have complained of smoke, which has been especially thick in the area between Yucca Valley and Lucerne Valley. If you're planning on a hike anywhere between Big Bear and the more populous sections of Joshua Tree National Park in the next few days, you'd be well advised to check for local conditions before setting out -- especially if you have chronic respiratory problems.
The cause of the fire is still being investigated. Public and reservation lands at the base of the mountains are a popular destination for gun enthusiasts who use exploding targets, and land managers have expressed recent concern over that practice, especially given this year's early fire season. But a better sense of the Hathaway Fire's cause will likely have to wait until the fire's brought under control, which firefighters now expect to take place June 25.
That's assuming the weather cooperates, which it may not. The National Weather Service is forecasting strong winds in the area Wednesday afternoon, reporting gusts of up to 60 miles per hour in Burns Canyon. With plenty of beetle-killed timber and rugged terrain in the area, the Hathaway Fire could get a whole lot bigger.
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