In 2015 the Rough Fire burned more than 150,000 acres in the mountains east of Fresno. The blaze burned hot and fast threatening Hume Lake Christian Camps in Sequoia National Forest. But while most of the area is starting to recover Boyden Cavern has yet to reopen. But that could soon change.
Usually the parking lot and picnic area at Boyden Cavern along Highway 180 in the Giant Sequoia National Monument is packed full of people. But traffic cones and caution tape have blocked the entrance for two years. The only life around is the rushing Kings River and passersby like Doug Borba that remember how low the river was last year.
“It was running then,” says Borba. “You could probably walk across it then. Not now. It’s too dangerous.”
Borba is from Tulare and he’s visiting the area with his girlfriend and her family from Texas. He says he would have liked to take them Boyden Cavern. He’s toured the marble cave system four times.
“It was interesting,” says Borba. “When you go up in and they turn the lights off [to see] how dark it is in there. I liked it, it was neat.”
Borba wasn’t able to hike the trail to the cave’s entrance because the Rough Fire destroyed a wooden bridge on the trail, as well as the generators that power the gift shop and lights to the cave.
“We were in the fourth year of drought when the Rough Fire started,” Hallacy says. “So you’re talking dry, dry, really dry vegetation throughout the whole area.”
Carol Hallacy oversees the Hume Lake Ranger District. She says the Rough fire was the first blaze to jump this portion of the Kings River. We’re walking up the paved trail, but have to stop at the burned bridge.
“So we need to get this bridge replaced,” says Hallacy. “As you can tell there’s nothing to walk on it. Just an open area acres across a drainage where there’s water coming down."
The bridge is only around three feet wide by five feet long. Hallacy says it needs to be fixed before the public can access the cave system. Boyden Cavern is within the Giant Sequoia National Monument boundaries, but it’s privately run. Stephen Fairchild has operated Boyden Cavern for eight years. His family has run it since 1972. He says he could've fixed the trail within two months after the fire stopped burning.
“But unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to do it that way and we had to work with the government to get through these very same processes and that’s what’s taken quite a bit of time,” Fairchild says.
Fairchild says slow moving government bureaucracy has kept the cavern from opening and the biggest question was over whose role it is to fund the repairs. In an email Forest Service officials say its Fairchild’s responsibility to fix the bridge and to get the area ready before the opening. They also say they’re assisting Fairchild with repairs.
“There certainly was some bureaucracy,” says Fairchild. “I don’t understand why it took two engineers to rebuild a little foot bridge. There are some things that are confusing to me.”
Two years later Fairchild says communication has improved with the Forest Service, but he’s waiting for the agency to approve an amendment to his permit to run the place. If approved Fairchild says he may get paid any funds he spends back over a five year span. He needs to clean up the trail, rebuild the bridge, install generators and replace a water system. He also has to cleanup the cave entry from fire damage and broken cave features destroyed by looters. He says it’ll cost around $100,000 to get Boyden Cavern open.
“I’m using credit cards now,” says Fairchild. “I’ve got a local bank that’s known me for years. They’re willing to help even though I can’t show income. I do have family if necessary can help me as well.”
Fairchild says the greater loss is that many of the skilled employees he usually hires year after year have found work elsewhere.
“I’ve worked really hard to find good people,” Fairchild says. “People who cared about the cave and cared about the customers. That was worth a lot to me. These mountain communities depend heavily on seasonal jobs.”
If Fairchild receives the permit soon he says Boyden Cavern could reopen as soon as mid-August. But that’ll be a very short window of opportunity for people to visit this year because the season closes in September.