Things are dry in the Eastern Sierra, really dry. So dry that all it took to begin a wildfire on August 5 along the Lower Rock Creek singletrack trail north of Bishop and south of Mammoth was a mountain bike pedal cracking against a rock and sending a spark into the underbrush.
The fire occurred three weeks ago and caused the evacuation of a small, nearby community and the closure of a road. By the time it was contained and put out, the fire burned 122 acres.
“The cause of the Rock Creek fire that started on August 5th has been determined,” Inyo National Forest posted on Facebook. “Investigators have concluded that the fire was started from a bicycle pedal strike to a rock. Conclusive evidence was found in the fire origin area that was on the Lower Rock Creek mountain bike trail. A fire ignition from this type of trigger is a testament to how dry the area is right now. All residents and visitors are asked to be extremely careful with anything that may cause a fire while you are out in the forest.”
Lower Rock Creek is the premium mountain biking singletrack in the Eastern Sierra, rated number one by readers of MTB Project. It parallels U.S. 395 between Bishop and Mammoth, but feels like a world away as you’re down in the creek drainage, slaloming between ponderosas and sage.
Forest Service fire prevention technician Kirstie Butler, who rides Lower Rock Creek herself, said that the ignition point was found unequivocally down to the actual rock the pedal struck and the patch of cheatgrass that caught the spark and was set ablaze.
“It really doesn’t take much for cheatgrass to ignite. Anything could start a fire in conditions like this. It would have been like striking a flint,” Butler told Bike Radar.
Apparently, the internet knows more about the cause of wildfires than a U.S. Forest Service fire prevention technician, because the condemnation on the Inyo National Forest Facebook page was swift and unrelenting, with more than 100 comments accusing the Forest Service of anti-bike bias, stupidity, and, perhaps, sorcery.
Okay, that last one I made up. But still. Our little world has become so politicized that people see evidence of prejudice in bad luck and science.
“This is not about pointing fingers,” said Butler. “We know it wasn’t done maliciously. We understand that mountain biking is a popular activity and we’re not trying to say that this is a reason to stop. It’s just something to be aware of.”
Photo by Andre Bessa