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Letter to Editor: Horse Rescue Highlights Brown Mountain Fire Road Weaknesses

Patch reader Lori Paul shares that while a horse fell and was rescued Tuesday night from Brown Mountainway, people were discussing Brown Mountain Fire Road's spotty conditions at an Altadena Crest Trail Restoration Working Group meeting.

In response to the story Patch covered Tuesday about a horse that went over a cliff in Angeles National Forest at Brown Mountainway and El Prieto Mountainway in Altadena and needed rescue, Patch reader Lori Paul shared the following:

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.

Robby November 14, 2012 at 08:23 PM
Wow, verrrrry good point, Lori. I had not realized that that was an official fire route for residents. It's been impassable by passenger car for some time (in my opinion). Truck, maybe, Taurus, no way. Scary. More high-handed stuff from the Forest Service. I'm so glad the horse and rider are OK. Serious thanks to the mountain biker who answered the rider's request for help, and to all the others who assisted!
Reiu K November 15, 2012 at 03:08 AM
I don't understand why you would risk the horse safety by riding in this area first of all. There are yellow signs posted in the area by the forest service stating the unstable nature of the area due to the station fire. Totally ridiculous reasoning.
Chris November 15, 2012 at 04:52 PM
Totally ridiculous reasoning.
Melody Comfort November 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM
I am concerned to hear that no "official" notice was given to the community that this passageway [Brown Mountain Fire Road] was no longer going to be maintained, and lost its designation as a fire road. However, the yellow signs should have put hikers/horseback rider(s) on notice that is unstable in areas of the route. I wonder if he is new to the area. "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: " That's endangerment of life safety, in my view -- [1] the fact that they didn't say anything, and [2] the fact that the road is now impassable for regular vehicles. The community's expectations and emergency preparedness efforts alter only when it is given updated information, which will ultimately affect their decision-making processes. "In fact, the District Ranger assured me in a recent e-mail that the road would receive needed attention." I would hope so, but to an adequate degree? Level 2 doesn't look too good. "That level permits vegetative encroachment, surface irregularities, and other impediments to vehicle use." If this was just another trail, maybe level 2 would suffice. But, as a potential for an evacuation route for vehicles -- area residents should assert themselves to keep it maintained as such.
Lori Paul November 16, 2012 at 09:23 PM
By this logic, no one would be hiking on local trails. Signs regarding instability of slopes or whatnot are very local and many have been removed since the Station Fire in 2009. Most of the unburned areas, including popular day use areas and sections of Brown Mountain Fire Road, the Altadena Crest Trail, etc. are open and safely passable.
Lori Paul November 16, 2012 at 09:32 PM
Thanks Melody. Many of us agree with your concerns. Feel free to contact the Angeles National Forest District Office about this issue: Tom Contreras, Angeles Forest Supervisor E-mail Contact Form: http://www.fs.usda.gov/contactus/angeles/about-forest/contactus (626) 574-1613 701 N. Santa Anita Ave. Arcadia, CA 91006
Reiu K November 20, 2012 at 10:49 PM
Lori, horses are very unstable animals. Easily spooked, lacks control. Why would you bring an animal with these characteristics to an unstable area. Further more, these animals weigh a ton. My concern is for the animal.
Lori Paul November 21, 2012 at 03:11 AM
Hi Reiu, The historic Brown Mountain Fire Road has, until quite recently, been exactly that... a road. Any unpaved road passable by cars and trucks (only in emergencies, of course) is by its dimensions and standards also safe as an equestrian trail. In fact, the road was originally constructed in the late 19th century for wagons pulled by... horses as well as riders on individual horses. There is nothing unsafe about the Brown Mountain Fire Road when it is in good repair. Unfortunately, though the road has been used for well over a century for horses and horse-drawn wagons,, it has become overgrown and unmaintained as described. It is for that very reason that the road should be restored... so it is safe again for horses as well as other trail users and, in the case of wildfire, for fire trucks, crew access and evacuation of local residents.
Kathleen Ungamrung December 20, 2012 at 10:43 PM
I am a horse owner and hiker and have ridden the Brown Mountain trail many times. The trail has been plenty wide for my horse to pass. Common sense along with proper trail etiquette puts me on the mountain-side of a trail, not the cliff-side. If you are talking about taking "unstable" horses off the trail, you mind as well take the out-of-control mountain bikers off the trail too that can't stop their bikes because they're going too fast.

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