A Tale of Two Trees

The two tree stumps in the center of the image are where the large Ponderosa Pines used to stand.

Before the fire, there were two majestic Ponderosa Pines that towered over the garage. After the fire they were still standing, but completely burned from bottom to top.

This is what the two Ponderosa Pines looked like after the fire.

Sadly, we knew that these old guys would have to come down eventually (one way or another).  The only questions were how and when.

Well, having a large excavator on site that can carry huge logs is not an opportunity to waste!  We didn’t.

We dropped the first tree up slope and cut it up into roughly 12 foot lengths.  We used the excavator to move and stack those logs along the fire road, across from where the Sea Train storage container used to be.

Image of a tall stack of large pine logs
One of the two Ponderosa Pines, stacked in its new location

The other Ponderosa was leaning to the east (down slope).  Trying to convince it to fall up slope to the west was much more of a challenge.  Ultimately we decided it was not worth the risks.  So we let it fall down slope, coming to rest on the barren hillside about 50 feet below the stump.

Image of a tree stump and a large tree on the ground below it.
The second Ponderosa now lies down slope, below the path to the picnic area.

While it was once a mature, forested hillside, the Logger’s Retreat property is now largely open land, covered with fallen trees.  Many of those trees were taken down by PG&E (to protect their power lines) and some were taken down by us. Some of the smaller ones were chipped by PG&E and those chips are useful to help control erosion. But most of the trees are still intact, now just lying across the steep hillside instead of standing tall over it.

Our current plan is to mill many of these fallen trees into landscaping timbers.  So we may eventually buck (i.e. cut up) that second Ponderosa where it lies, and then drag those logs back up the hill.  But for now we’ll just leave it on the hillside where it fell.

By the way, if you’ve ever enjoyed the historic logging train ride across the road at the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, you might recognize this as what they call a “Leaverite.”  (As in “Leave ‘er right there!”)

Making the Grade

It can be surprising what you can rent when you really want to.  We had to move some big rocks. This is what we came up with.

Image of a large Catepiller excavator
You too can rent this excavator for around $600 per day. Beats picking up boulders (and trees) by hand! Easier on the back too.

No, it wasn’t me driving; I had some (really great) help with that part.

One task for the excavator was to move some large boulders to form a flat pad at the top of the little knoll above our property, where we hope to place several water tanks.  These will provide us with a gravity-fed source of water, both for domestic use and hopefully also emergency irrigation that can defend against the next wildfire.  Here you can see the excavator at work on the top of the knoll.

Image of an excavator at the top of a small wooded hill
Don’t ask how we got it up there (it wasn’t easy).
Image of a large boulder in the jaws of the excavator
The excavator makes short work of moving large boulders like this one.

After a day or so of excavator work, our new pad was finished!

Image of a dirt road going to the top of a small wooded hill.
Here is the access road to the top of the knoll.
Image of the flat area at the top of the hill
And here is the top of the knoll itself

We now have plenty of room at the top for several water tanks, as well as enough space to turn a truck around too!  I’ll give this grading an A.

Clearance: Half Off

Closeup view of a wheel spacer installed

In the spirit of Black Friday, I’ll offer you another story in the continuing saga of getting the Bobcat ready for Winter.

On a recent trip up one of the things we brought along was a shiny new set of tire chains.  The possibility of snow had been in the forecast and it is much more pleasant to install chains before the snow falls, when it is still relatively warm and dry outside.  So our plan was to get the chains mounted onto the Bobcat’s tires prior to the incoming storm.

That plan was thwarted when I saw that the clearance between the tires and the Bobcat’s frame was too narrow — by at least a half of an inch.

Rut roh.  No chains installed on this visit!

Back home I researched my options.  Some Bobcat wheel rims are fancy enough that you can mount them “inside out” (actually by swapping the left side tire with the right side, so that the tread still faces forward) and thereby get yourself a bit more clearance.  But back home now, I couldn’t tell whether or not my rims were the fancy type, so I couldn’t count on that as an option.

Of course I could buy new rims with greater clearance (assuming they could be found) , or the fancy reversible ones, and swap my tires onto those.  Either of those two options was expensive and difficult to do, unless maybe you happen to own a tire store right next to your Bobcat. Not my first choice.

Another option was to install “wheel spacers,” metal rings that mount between the axle and the rim. Seems like these metal rings are not available in any thickness other than two inches.  These are specifically designed for use with OTT (“over the tire”) tank-type tracks, which apparently need at least two inches of extra clearance between tire and frame.

Tracks are great for muddy construction sites.  But they don’t grip very well on ice; chains are much more effective for that. So I won’t be adding tracks to my Bobcat anytime soon.  Two inches of additional clearance was far more than the half-inch I needed, but “more than enough” is not a problem in this case.  The wider stance actually makes the Bobcat a bit more stable.

Plus, adding spacers was guaranteed to give me the clearance I needed regardless of whether or not my rims were already the fancy reversible kind.  So spacers were the lowest-risk, least expensive solution that would guarantee me the clearance I needed.

So spacers it was.  Cast iron spacers are more common (and slightly cheaper) but they weigh more than 20 lbs each.  That’s 80+ lbs of shipping weight alone.  Spacers were also available in anodized aluminum at roughly 1/4 the weight and only about $10 more per spacer.  They also don’t rust.  That all sounded worth $40 to me.

Installation was pretty straightforward.  There was a bit of a risk that my puny two-ton hydraulic jack would not be up to the task, but it came through (just barely).

Image of a Bobcat skidsteer with rear wheel removed
Two-ton jack lifting at its limit, and rear wheel removed
Image of a red aluminum wheel spacer next to the Bobcat
The snazzy bright-red-anodized wheel spacer is ready to install
Image of wheel spacer installed on the axle
Rear wheel spacer installed and lug nuts property torqued

The front of the Bobcat was considerably lighter than the rear so jacking that up was a breeze.  Of course I could have used the Bobcat’s own arm hydraulics to lift the front tires off the floor instead of using the jack.  But I didn’t want to risk the possibility of a slow leak in the hydraulics complicating the process, and the jack was easy enough to use anyway.

Image of wheel spacer and front axle of the Bobcat
Front of Bobcat lifted and wheel spacer ready to install

The whole process took me approximately 2 hours start to finish.

Image of Bobcat with tire chains installed
All four tire chains now installed with plenty of clearance!

While I was working on the Bobcat I also added a much-needed rearview mirror.  The old 843 we lost in the fire had a mirror, which frankly I didn’t think I used that much. But the new S185 came without one, and I’ve noticed how much I really did miss it.

Image of the rear view mirror from the operator's perspective
A Bobcat-style selfie

Skidsteers are very easy to learn to drive, but what can take practice is learning how to not hit things that you don’t want to damage.  There’s so much weight and hydraulic power behind that weight that you often can’t even feel a collision when it happens.  The mirror helps prevent it from occurring in the first place.

Still Not Quite Ready

Since about mid-October the Bobcat has been beeping 3 times when you first start it, and flashing a glowplug warning light.  After you start it though the warning goes away so I hadn’t been too concerned about it.  Seemed like it might just be telling me that it was using the glowplugs to help start.

But on this last visit the morning was cold (low temps in the 40s) and the Bobcat took several tries to start.  This concerned me since it is absolutely essential that the Bobcat starts reliably in snowy conditions.

Time for more research.

It turns out that the warning is telling me that the diesel engine’s glowplugs are not working correctly.  Diesel engines only need them for cold starts so that explains why the warning only appeared recently (Fall temperatures), and only on the first start of the day.  Either one or more of the glowplugs themselves are bad, or the electrical system supplying them has a problem.

I can’t determine  which one it is  until our next visit.  There is some rain in the forecast for next week, but fortunately not snow (yet).

Weather: we like it! (Or not.)

The view north towards Raymond Mountain on the morning after more than 3 inches of rain fell overnight

At the end of my November 2nd post I mentioned that I was hoping that the demolition/cleanup contractors would finish soon, because there was rain & possibly snow in the forecast.  Well fortunately they did (finish), and there wasn’t (snow).

We received about a third of an inch of rain in that storm, which was good! It was enough to nourish the landscape but not enough to create troublesome mud and debris flows.

Image of a chart of rainfall showing 3.3. inches overnight
This is a graph of total rainfall at our weather station up the road in Fish Camp: 3.3 inches overnight!

This past week we had a second storm come through, with much more rain.

This storm was typical of what weather folks call an “atmospheric river” or more colloquially as the “Pineapple Express.”

These are weather systems where a cold, low pressure air mass from the north drops down and meets a warm high pressure airmass from further south off the coast of California or Mexico. The counterclockwise rotation of the low pairs with the clockwise rotation of the high below it to pump a narrow stream of tropical moisture from the mid-Pacific (roughly  near Hawaii) directly into California.  Depending on the temperatures involved and the time of year, large amounts of moisture can fall on the high Sierras as either rain or snow.

Thank goodness this storm was early in the season and too warm for snow at our elevation of 5000 ft. That much precipitation could easily have been as much as 3 feet  of snow, and our Bobcat skidsteer wasn’t quite ready for snow yet (more on that issue in a following post).

That said, 3+ inches of rain is still a lot of rain.  Mud flows clogged the culverts under Highway 41 all the way from south of the Westfall Fire Station up to Fish Camp.

Even the 12 inch diameter culvert that runs under the first turn of our driveway had been overwhelmed by a mass of black, gooey mud.  When I arrived the tiny creek that normally flows through the culvert was no longer tiny, and no longer going under the driveway, but rather down it instead.

The forecast called for temperatures to dip below freezing by Friday night.  If I wasn’t able to unplug that culvert before then the water now streaming down the driveway could easily freeze and turn much of that portion into an ice rink.

This could easily have been a major, unexpected headache. But fortunately by probing the muck with a 4 foot piece of lumber for about 15 minutes, I was able to find the mouth of the culvert, poke through the mud and restart the flow.  After that the water itself did the rest of the work, flushing the entire area around the mouth of the culvert clean of the remaining gook.

The rest of the property survived the storm pretty well.  For instance, after the demolition & cleanup was finished we had used a small excavator to widen and level the driveway shoulder in several places.

Image of a Bobcat mini excavator in a widened shoulder of the driveway
This new turnout is about 50 ft above the Trestlewood Chalet

I hope to be able to use the new turnout above as an alternative place to store the Bobcat and its attachments, one that is out of the way of Trestlewood Chalet guests.

Image of exacator on a newly-created flat space
Eventually we’ll use this newly leveled spot  inside the highest switchback as a place to store logs.

These newly-cleared areas, as well as the former Logger’s Retreat breezeway itself, were at risk of being washed out by the rain.  We had tried to minimize that risk before the storm and the results were encouraging.

Image of a small amount of mud flowing across the driveway
Silt fencing did a pretty good job of holding most of the mud in place.
Image of driveway with more mud across it
There was more erosion at the top switchback, but still it was manageable
Image of another muddied part of the driveway
This mud above the top switchback actually had nothing to do with our grading work.  It all came down from the fire road above

We were particularly worried about the former breezeway area since the recently disturbed soil there was soft and there was no longer any cinder block wall to stop mud from flowing over the edge.    But some careful placement of boulders at the edge and the construction of a small berm were enough to keep the water flowing in the right direction and erosion to a minimum.

Image of the Logger's Retreat site with small erosion channels cut into the dirt
This is how the former breezeway looks after more than 3 inches of rain overnight. Not bad!
(And We Do Like It)

Of course we would have preferred a slower, more gentle rain.  Yet despite the real risks that a deluge poses, the storm’s aftermath Friday morning was stunningly beautiful — just as it often had been on Fall mornings prior to the fire.  In the crisp early morning air, fingers of low clouds and fog clung to the forested hills across the valley.

Soon enough the sun broke through, quickly burning off much of those clouds but also warming the ground, which caused new misty wisps of fog to rise up and drift across the blackened landscape.

As I went about my tasks I  paused often to savor the cold morning air and the sharp visual contrasts of bright blue and white sky against a sparkling forest of wet beige and black trees.

Mornings like this are one of the things we’ve always loved about the Logger’s Retreat. And although most of the trees and all of the structures on our property are now gone, I find it comforting to see that this place still delivers its special magic to anyone here who is willing take a moment to appreciate it.

Survey Says!

Early in this whole rebuilding process, I knew we would need to know exactly where our property lines were.

Image of Jones Snyder & Associates contact information
The surveyor’s contact information. These guys are great!

In the 3rd week of September I contacted Jones Snyder & Assoc by email to schedule an appointment.  Nick told me they would need about a month’s lead time to do the survey, which was fine.  I gave them the go-ahead.

By late October I still hadn’t seen or heard from Nick, and had noticed that I could really use those boundary stakes.  I had talked with several contractors using approximates, but we really needed exact on-the-ground locations before they could start doing any serious clearing or grading work.

I checked in with Jones & Snyder again to see where we were in their schedule. They said they would be on site the next Monday. By the following Friday (November 3rd) we had our stakes in the ground and a large set of digital files available in a Dropbox folder.  Perfect!

An unexpected bonus was that they had recently (2016?) acquired an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (i.e. a “drone”).  They had used it to accurately photograph the landscape from above and then included the full, high-resolution (146 Megabytes at 1 pixel per inch) TIFF image along with their survey drawing.

Image of a surveyor controlling a drone flying a short distance away
One of the surveyors playing with their new UAV (photo by Jones & Snyder, from their website)

Coming from surveyors of course, the image from the drone is an orthographic projection — meaning that the image will accurately map onto 2 dimensional drawings. As an example of how useful this is, they also included a lower resolution version of the image combined with the survey drawing in a convenient PDF format (this file is only 3.8 Mbytes).

I’ve now imported both the boundary drawing as well as the drone image as separate layers into my AutoCad drawings of the property.  This allows me to easily view or hide the orthographic image as I experiment in AutoCad with structure or landscape modifications.  It is immensely helpful for adding that extra bit of “ground truth” to any wild idea I may get.

But what is also notable to me about the drone image is how clearly it shows the contrast between the areas that burned and those that did not.  You can see exactly how the fire narrowly avoided the Trestlewood Chalet and our neighbor’s house to the north, and yet totally engulfed the area surrounding the Logger’s Retreat.  Even in the low-resolution PDF image you can still clearly see the driveway, downed trees, newly-exposed boulders and the barren fire-swept hillsides.  In the middle of it all, below the bare spot where the house once stood, there is the old picnic area with its fire ring and picnic table, essentially untouched by the inferno that had surrounded them.

Count me as a satisfied customer. Now I’m wondering what it would cost to have Jones & Snyder come out again, just to take an updated drone image (or two).  Stay tuned!


Cleaning (up) House – Part 2

Some of the tools that DKI used to tackle the mess that was the Logger's Retreat
Breaking Up is Hard to Do

I was next able to visit the property in late October.  The optimism we enjoyed from seeing the start of cleanup had been tempered a bit by the fact that we had no visual progress updates since the last visit.  So I found myself anticipating this visit in part just to be able to get another dopamine boost.

About a third of an inch of rain had fallen at the end of the previous week. It was obviously welcome relief to the parched landscape, but had interrupted DKI’s schedule. They did not work on site that Friday as they were worried about the possibility of snow on the steep driveway.  They seemed to be taking longer than planned and this had only delayed them further.

Image of driveway surrounded by many fallen trees
This is what the driveway now looks like from the top of the steepest section

Still, by the time I arrived they had finished removing most of the debris. They were now focused on removing the concrete foundations and dead trees surrounding the house and garage.

Image of clean concrete slab
The pump house and water tank slab are now cleared of all debris

Though they were technically a bit behind schedule, their efforts were notable both for the good progress they had made, and for how they made difficult work look pretty easy.

Image of foundation wall with clean dirt at its base
The foundation wall is now all that is left of the house itself. The former entrance to the house is at top left, and the oak tree on the right is the one that was right next to the lower deck

For instance, to clear the area below the foundation wall (where the house itself once stood) required two excavators; one below the wall to remove material, and another above, on the driveway itself, to dispose of it.  Getting that lower excavator into position required navigating some pretty steep terrain.

Image of the driveway edge with steep dropoff for a shoulder
This steep slope is the “road” the excavator had to navigate (in reverse) in order to go from the work site back onto the driveway

Shortly after I arrived they were done using the lower excavator, so they needed to get it back up onto the driveway.  The terrain is too steep to drive up normally, as you might with a car for example.

Image of excavator backing up a very steep slope
If you’ve ever worked with equipment like this you know how tricky this maneuver is.

Instead you have to approach the slope backwards, and simultaneously use the shovel as both a crutch (for stability) and as a foot (to push the excavator up slope).  Without that extra push the excavator’s tracks just grind their way into the dirt and you go nowhere.  Lose the extra stability provided by the crutch and you risk rolling the (several ton) excavator over, on a steep hillside no less.  This is not a job for the feint of heart!

Meanwhile, on the driveway itself, DKI used the heavy equipment to collect and then dispose of the foundation rubble.  As I know from my experience with the Bobcat skidsteer, it is easy to take for granted the power available in those hydraulic cylinders.

Image of a pile of large boulder-size rocks and concrete chunks
Some of the rocks and broken concrete DKI collected to haul away

Imagine trying to move even one of those boulders by hand.  Or the tree trunks below.  With only manual labor it would have taken many hands, and many weeks.

Image of a pile of tree trunks and branches
They collected tree trunks and “slash” in another pile nearby

Here’s another example of the power behind those hydraulics.  That crumpled piece of metal below is actually the quarter-inch-thick steel door of the old Bobcat’s engine compartment.

Image of debris including a crumpled heavy steel door
The heavy steel rear door of the Bobcat, crumpled almost as if made of aluminum foil

Despite the power in these mechanical beasts of burden, they do still have their limits.  DKI’s foreman told me that he had to dismantle the burned-out hulk of our old Bobcat because it was just too heavy to lift in one piece.  That is why he had removed the steel door.

Image of rusted diesel engine block on pavement
The Bobcat’s diesel engine lies alone on the ground, bent and partially dismantled

For the same reason I found the Bobcat’s diesel engine lying on the pavement, all alone and partially dismantled.

Closeup image of a diesel engine partially dissasembled
A closeup of the underside of the Bobcat engine, showing the exposed crankshaft and piston rods

While the engineer in me found the exposed innards very interesting, it was also a bit sad to see the engine like this.  Prior to the fire it had been fully functional and running strong, providing the very same kind of power that DKI was now using to dispose of it.

Goodbyes Are Hard Too

Despite the welcome morale boost each step in the cleanup has given us, there is (for me at least) still a quiet but persistent sadness present whenever I visit.  I feel a nagging sense of loss here; the loss of something that can never be replaced, never undone.

I feel it acutely every time I see a new tree stump appear where a familiar tree once stood.  On a practical level I know the trees have to come down. They are dead (or nearly so). They can never again be the healthy green towers of shade that they once were. It was only a short few months ago that the landscape was crowded with them.  Now the few that remain standing are coming down too.

Image of driveway and oak tree with mountains in the background
A late afternoon overview of the driveway from above, with the oak tree still standing

Though I know it cannot be so, a big part of me still wants to believe that if only I let them remain standing they would bud again next Spring.  It hurts to see each one of these old friends come down.

Image of driveway and stump from above with mountains in background
Another overview of the driveway on the following day, with the big oak tree now lying on the pavement below
Image of felled trees lying across a rocky pathway
Nearly all of the trees that were above the path to the picnic area are now lying across it, or gone altogether
Image of foundation wall, dirt and felled oak tree
That oak tree that was next to the lower deck is now down too.

The feeling of loss is not confined to those majestic old trees either.  Familiar aspects of the house and property are now also gone forever, or disappearing with each day of the demolition.

Image of a clean but soot-stained cinderblock wall
On the day I arrived, the shop wall where the wood stove once stood was nearly all that was left of the garage
Image of a hillside with tree stump and cinderblock rubble below
And by the end of the following day the wall itself was down; the big oak tree above it reduced to a stump. Its branches are visible in the foreground
Image of bent metal tubes next to a pile large boulders
The garage and shop support posts which survived the fire have now joined the pile of concrete and boulders, awaiting their trip to the landfill.

One final task during my visit was to empty the 20 foot storage container behind the house.  Although it survived the fire, thick smoke found its way into the interior, covering everything inside with a heavy layer of jet-black soot.

Image of a metal storage container surrounded by charred trees
The blackened storage container is surrounded by dead trees, including a massive, broken old oak tree directly behind it

It had been mostly empty already except for some sturdy metal shelves, extra skid-steer tire chains and a few other parts for the old Bobcat.

Image of the sooty insides of the storage container
The inside of the container was not damaged by heat, but completely covered with soot

I pulled those things out of the container and stacked them beside the few items we’d salvaged from the garage’s shop area.

Image of several metal objects in front of a blackened metal storage container
The salvaged wood stove and shop workbench now stand in front of the storage container, along with some of the container’s metal shelving

After the container was empty I secured a plastic tarp over the items outside, in a feeble attempt to protect them from the long winter ahead.

The container itself will probably be one of the last things that DKI removes from the property.  Even though we really didn’t use it for the last 10 years, it will still make me sad to see it go. Kinda like the trees I guess.

Come to think of it, we didn’t really “use” most of those trees on the property either.  Yet like good friends they were always there for us.

That Reminds Me

As I started down the driveway on my way back home, this colorful Dogwood reminded me that Winter is just around the corner.

Image of a small Dogwood with bright yellow and orange leaves
A young Dogwood in front of the Trestlewood Chalet is putting on a Fall show

And sure enough, I see that there is more rain and possibly even snow in the forecast for this weekend, the first weekend of November.

That forecast has me worrying about the driveway again.  I sure hope DKI is finished by Friday!

Cleaning (up) House – Part 1

The very first view of the wreckage after the fire
This Place is a Mess!

In my very first post here I expressed our frustration on realizing the enormity of the task ahead, and simultaneously feeling an inability at the time to make any real forward progress.

Image of smoke rising from burned debris on the driveway
On our first visit to the Logger’s Retreat smoke and even open flame are still present 12 days after the fire started

In retrospect we now realize that the wreckage itself was both a symbolic representation of that frustration and a distinctly tangible source of it as well.

The tangible part being that it was, plain and simple, an enormous mess.

Image of rubble and burned metal frameworks piled below foundation walls
This is looking toward the laundry room and master bedroom from near the location of the front entry way.

A sooty, dusty, and possibly toxic mess as well.  The house was new enough for asbestos not to be much of a concern. But before the fire there was a normal amount of lead, plastic and electronics inside.

Image of concrete roofing tiles piled on top of burned out equipment
The remains of the garage and its contents, including the Bobcat with its brush and snowblower attachments.

It was impossible to visit the site and not come away covered from head to toe in black sooty dust. It was not a pleasant place to be.

Image of a pile of blackened fiberglass
This was our hot tub, now little more than a heap of fiberglass
Image of roofing tiles, a blackened tank and rubble behind the garage
The remains of our pump house and pressure tank, with the fiberglass of the 5000 gallon storage tank in a pile beside it.

It was quickly apparent to us that we could not do much of anything until the site was cleared of all that debris.  We could also see that this task was far beyond our own abilities.  We had to have help.

We contacted several Fresno-area demolition companies, and even had some visit the site to provide an estimate.  But after the visits, days went by. Phone calls were not returned. And the estimates never came in.  More frustration.

I guess this job was as daunting to them as it was to us.  The location on a hillside at the top of a steep driveway made it even more difficult.  Weather was also a factor in that Winter was fast approaching.  While we had no hard deadline on this, still we hoped that at least we could get the site cleaned up before snow and ice prevented further access until Spring.

The situation finally improved after we contacted David Knott Inc of Fresno.

Dave responded quickly with both a visit and confirmation that yes, they could handle the job.  He also confirmed that they could begin work in October and expected to finish by the end of that month.

The quote was quite a bit higher than everyone expected (including our insurance adjuster), and Dave knew it would be.  With apologies he explained that he couldn’t find a way to do it for less.  Given the amount of work to do and the difficult location it would take him at least 10 days.

But at least he would get it done. Progress!

We didn’t really have another choice.  We returned our signed agreement on Tuesday, October 10 and their work started shortly thereafter.

The Cleanup Begins

We were able to visit the site again on that following Friday. While we did expect to see some initial progress, what we did not expect was the psychological boost that progress gave us.  It was just such a great relief to see some improvement, any improvement, after so many days of stagnation.

Image of a clean driveway with safety markers along the edge
The breezeway is finally clear of rubble and charred timbers
Image of lower driveway free of debris
The lower driveway and garage area are free of debris too
Image of bare dirt below the exposed foundation wall
Rubble is gone from the area below where the kitchen deck once stood
Image of the Bobcat and wood stove on clean pavement
The Bobcat is no longer surrounded by broken roofing tiles and charred attachments
Image of only clean pavement and dirt where the hot tub once was
The fiberglass pile that was a hot tub is only a memory now

We enjoyed the rest of our weekend, savoring a newfound sense of optimism.

I realize now that the symbolic part of all that mess was the greater, more general roadblock to our overall progress that it represented.  And now that DKI was actually cleaning up the mess, they were finally removing that roadblock too.

And About That Driveway…

A topographic map of the Logger's Retreat driveway
Image of a steeply rising driveway with burned trees
This is looking up at the steepest section of the driveway, just above the Trestlewood Chalet

Driveway snow removal remains my biggest near-term concern, but we have also made some progress there.   (Emphasis is on the “some.”)

A Driveway Primer (for those who have never been to the Logger’s Retreat)

The driveway to the Logger’s Retreat is easily 1000 ft long and rises several hundred feet.  The steepest section has roughly a 58 percent grade, meaning 58 feet of elevation change for each 100 ft of horizontal travel.   It’s real work just to walk up that driveway, even without any snow.

As long as the driveway is free of snow and ice, it is usable.  The property gets a lot of sun even in the middle of winter, so snow doesn’t tend to last long.  But in winter months the night time temperature does regularly drop below freezing, and if the snow turns to ice the driveway becomes an ice rink — with a 58 percent grade no less.  The only way to keep that driveway safe in winter is to keep it clean.

When we bought the Logger’s Retreat in 2006, I was surprised (and somewhat excited) to learn it would include a Bobcat and a few attachments, including a plow blade.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the reason the Bobcat came with the house was that it was essential; there is no other practical way to clear that long, steep driveway of snow.

And another important point that you may not realize: you simply cannot plow snow uphill.  Certainly not on a 58 percent grade anyway.  There you have to work with gravity, not against it.

So we kept the Bobcat and all its winter attachments at the top of the hill, in the Logger’s Retreat garage. Plus, the garage provided shelter.  It provided lighting.  And power.  I could work on the equipment there, in relative comfort, at any time of day or night.  I could keep the Bobcat’s battery fully charged.

Trust me, you don’t want to hike all the way up that hill, through deep snow, and then find the battery is too weak to start the Bobcat.  “Been there. Done that.”

After The Fire

But now there is no garage at the top of the hill.  No shelter, no lights, no power.  There is no Bobcat either, for that matter.

Well it is still there, but it’s not in very good condition.

Image of a burned out Bobcat driver's seat and controls
The cab of our Bobcat 843 skidsteer, looking a bit worse for the wear.

And its battery is gone too, save for the solidified puddle of lead left on the floor behind it.

You might think that this is no big deal, because the Logger’s Retreat itself is also gone.  No one will stay there this Winter; no need to clear that driveway!

You would be half right.  (The upper half to be precise.) But the Trestlewood Chalet is still available for guests.  And we still need that income, particularly during the slow season, when cash flow can be an issue.  Christmas, New Years, MLK and Presidents Day holidays are the most popular rental periods in the winter.  In part because of the prospect of snow.  Hmm.

I still need to keep the Trestlewood Chalet accessible by car.  I still need to keep (at least) the lower half of the driveway clear of snow.

Driveway Progress, Part 1

Step one was to replace the Bobcat.

If there is one thing we do appreciate (and there aren’t many) about living near a big megalopolis like Los Angeles, it is that when you need something, even something kind of obscure, chances are you can find it nearby.

Within two weeks of the fire I had found and purchased a used Bobcat S185 skidsteer with high flow hydraulics from Rexin Equpment in Long Beach CA. 

The high flow hydraulics are an important feature to have when using certain attachments — like a snowblower for instance.

Not only did I get a reasonable price from Rexin, but delivery from Long Beach to our driveway was included (thanks Javier)!  Solving the delivery problem was a key factor in sealing the deal for me.  I do like one stop shopping!

Driveway Progress, Part 2

By mid-September I had ordered replacement attachments as well. The most important of these are a snowblower and a broom. We need the snowblower for obvious reasons.  We need the broom to clean off the small amount of snow and slush that remains after the snowblower has done its job.   Without the broom to sweep off those remainders, you’ll still end up with an ice rink.

The attachments had a 3-to-4 week lead time, which put them arriving in the first or second week of October.  It turns out they shipped early (that’s not a problem), without any warning (that is a problem).

And due to a typical shipping SNAFU they first tried to deliver them to our residence in Altadena. The driver suspected something was not right when he realized he was trying to deliver a 1000+ lb snowblower to a residence in Southern California.  Lot’s of snow there (not)!

After correcting that SNAFU, we received our first attachments near the end of September.  Yay!

Image of a skidsteer picking up a pallet of heavy equipment
Using the new (old) Bobcat to unload the Quickattach angle broom from the delivery truck.
Image of a Bobcat skidsteer with angle broom attachment
The broom is assembled and attached!

And about a week later we had the snowblower too.

U=Image of a snowblower on a pallet
Our assembled Quickattach snowblower — it’s a beast!

I had two small mysteries to solve with the new attachments.

The first was that while the broom itself would spin just fine, I could not change the sweeping angle from side to side.  Without that ability, the swept-up debris would just accumulate in front of the broom.  That’s not very useful.

Since the Bobcat is “old” (i.e. used) but still “new” (i.e. unfamiliar) to me, I couldn’t tell whether the problem was in the attachment or in the Bobcat.  A phone call to Quickattach provided me with the (essential!) wiring diagram for the attachment, and the oracle Google eventually provided me with a PDF of the (essential!) Bobcat S185 service manual.

On my next visit to the property, a bit of sleuthing with a voltmeter verified that the attachment was wired correctly which meant the Bobcat was the culprit. The ground return side of the Bobcat’s controls checked out as well.   So that left only the power side.  Occam’s Razor suggested to me that the fuse box was the next place to look, but of course at that time I didn’t know where the fuse box was.

Image of fusebox directly below operator's seat
The location of the fuse box (yes that is the operator’s seat at the top of the image!)

Oh yeah, there it is.

On the next visit I came prepared with my new knowledge of the fuse box location as well as some extra fuses.  Sure enough that fuse was blown.  Now the broom has angle control!

The second small mystery was with the snowblower.  We connected it and confirmed that the snowblower’s fan and auger would spin.  The chute rotated too, but way too fast.  Then I enabled High Flow hydraulics.  The Bobcat’s engine labored and the auger slowed down.  That didn’t sound right.

Back home on the following Monday morning, another call to Quickattach solved this mystery.  I described the symptoms and immediately the answer came back that Quickattach had swapped the flat-face connectors.  So we were pumping hydraulic fluid through the snowblower backwards.

The fix is simply to swap the connectors.  So we’ll do that on our next visit.

Of course the Logger’s Retreat garage is still gone, but at least now we have the tools we need to clear the driveway of snow.

Image of plowed driveway with deep snowbanks
This is another view of that steepest part of the driveway, taken last January after about 4 feet of new snow.

Yay! Some progress at last.

But What About Winter?

The Trestlewood Chalet's water tank as we found it after the fire

Oh yeah, that.

Unfortunately Nature’s recovery efforts alone won’t rebuild the infrastructure we’ve lost.  Or plow the driveway.  Still, we’re making some progress on these as well.

Image of a new 2500 gallon water tank and plumbing
Behold the new water tank for the Trestlewood Chalet!

We were under a hard deadline to replace the Trestlewood Chalet’s water tank, as guests were scheduled to arrive late in the third week in September.

We asked Dave at H&B Drilling in Oakhurst if they could replace the tank and get the system back online before the guests arrival.

Dave said he could, even though their schedule was already crammed full after so many other residences had also lost their tanks in both the Railroad Fire and then the Mission fire near North Fork.

Not only had the Railroad fire melted our tank, but it also damaged the plastic water line in many places along the route between the house and the tank.  Finding and repairing those sections turned out to be an unexpected challenge.

But first they had to cut up the melted remains of the old tank just to remove it.  A chainsaw quickly solved that problem.  Next, they had to recruit several additional hired hands in order to roll (by hand) the new (empty) 2500 gallon tank about 100ft across the steep hillside to get it to its leveled pad.

Dave and his assistant then plumbed and wired up the new tank, but it took them much of the next day to find and replace all the leaking sections of the water line.  They nearly ran out of connectors but finally, 1 day before our deadline, the Trestlewood Chalet had water again!

Just last weekend my wife and I were finally able to insulate and re-bury the repaired water line. So now that part at least should be ready for freezing weather.

To protect the shutoff valve and remaining above-ground plumbing from the cold I added the irrigation control box shown in the photo above.  To that I also added  auxiliary valves and a clear plastic standpipe, so that when needed I can view the actual water level inside the tank.

All that remains now for winterizing the Trestlewood Chalet’s water system is for us to stuff that box full of insulation.  I’ll have to leave that task to our next visit.

The Recovery Begins

Image of an oak sprouting from the base of a burned stumpA new oak tree sprouts defiantly from the stump of a large oak tree felled by PG&E crews protecting their power lines

Well it’s been several weeks since my first post.  The initial feedback I’ve received about this blog from family and friends has been positive and encouraging; thank you all for that!

Writing about this process does not seem to be as difficult as I thought it might be; there are always new developments to write about.  Rather it is dedicating the time to write them down that seems to be the greater challenge.

Green Is The New Black
Image of a small patch of vinca on the ground
This vinca was the first green to appear after the fire

Some of the most remarkable developments over the last month are the natural ones. And of course they just happen all by themselves, requiring none of my time at all!  I really like that particular aspect of Nature.

Quite literally, within the first week after the fire — even while the remains of our railroad-tie retaining wall still burned — our caretaker noted a small patch of vinca had reappeared near the ruins of our hot tub.

Image of a few oak leaves sprouting from the base of a small twig
This is the tiny oak my brother found while inspecting the property in mid September.

By far the most aggressive flora seem to be the oaks.  Not three weeks after the fire started and while it continued to smolder on our property,  my brother found a tiny green sprout down by the picnic area.

A landscaper and arborist by trade, we had asked for his advice on how to best to mitigate erosion and replant the property. Among other things, his research suggests that conifers will have the most difficulty coming back, so those species will need the most nurturing.

Even Jacob Tallmon, the Madera County sheriff’s officer (and the last person to see the Logger’s Retreat still standing), had told me in passing that the oak trees would take over if left unchecked.  It appears he may be right.

Image of two oak saplings with new greenery sprouting from their bases
Here are two more oak sprouts enjoying their new, uncrowded surroundings
Large oaks sprout from the base of a mid-sized sapling
And now it is clear the oaks were not daunted much by this fire
About That Erosion Thing

Initially we were quite worried about erosion, given that much of the landscape (which incidentally is directly above the Trestlewood Chalet) is now essentially a steep and naked hillside.  I was concerned that a big rain this Fall might create mudslides large enough to threaten that house.

Image of road across a steep slope of burned landscape
This is actually up the fire road a bit from our property, but still illustrative of the general erosion threat.

We briefly considered mitigation techniques such as covering the slopes with hay. I think one suggested application rate was on the order of 60 bales per acre.  That’s a lot of hay (and a lot of work)!

But over time other options have become apparent, and many of those use existing materials on site — a big plus in my mind.  For instance simply dropping dead trees across the slope helps stop erosion channels from forming.  We’ve still got plenty of trees to drop.  Also we learned that chipping the “slash” (smaller branches and bark) and then scattering the chips helps control erosion.

My brother pointed out that the areas at highest risk for serious erosion damage were at the steep slopes along the driveway itself. A washout on the driveway would be no fun at all.

Then the PG&E tree trimmers came back with their chipper.  What did they do with it?  They chipped their slash and shot much of the chips along the sides the driveway — right where I would have wanted it to go.  I guess these guys know what they are doing.

Another thing I’ve noticed as we have worked on the property during the last month is that even though the hillside looks barren, the forest floor itself is still a solid mat of intertwined roots, branches and decaying bark, often so thick it is hard work just to get a shovel through it. And  even though the above ground parts of trees and bushes have burned away completely, their stumps and root structure are still intact underground.   I don’t think that hillside is going to move very easily.

I’m no longer too worried about erosion.  If we find spot problems, we’ll address those individually.  And even if we were to get an actual, full-blown mudslide, I doubt if any hay or wood chips we might scatter would really make much of a difference there anyway.

Que sera, sera!