Fire risk closes section of Joshua Tree National Park over July 4 weekend

The sun shines through the limbs of a Joshua tree at sunrise. Long shadows stretch across the ground.
To protect Joshua trees and other sensitive plant life, the National Park Service is closing a portion of Joshua Tree National Park.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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An ecologically sensitive portion of Joshua Tree National Park will be closed this week due to extreme wildfire risk as a heat wave is set to broil the region over the Fourth of July holiday.

The Covington Flats area, home to some of the park’s largest Joshua trees, junipers and pinyon pines, will be shut to the public Wednesday through Sunday, reopening Monday morning, according to the National Park Service. The remote area includes 10 miles of Park Service-maintained roads and access points to backcountry trailheads, officials said.

The closure comes after the August 2023 storm Hilary, followed by other storms in the fall and winter, stoked the growth of grasses, creating what experts call a continuous fuel bed connecting larger shrubs and trees. Those grasses, now dry, could help flames spread across the landscape, said Sasha Travaglio, park ranger at Joshua Tree National Park.

“These fuel conditions make it easy for a fire to start and hard to control if it becomes established,” Travaglio wrote in an email. “Fast-burning grasses can quickly spread fire to large plants like Joshua trees and juniper.” Those larger plants then burn longer and hotter, helping to sustain the fire, she added.


The grasses that have taken hold in the area include invasive species such as cheatgrass and Mediterranean grasses, which now fill the once-empty spaces of dirt that used to naturally exist between native desert plants, Travaglio said.

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A warm spring and early summer have helped ensure the vegetation is ready to burn, said Ryan Worley, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Phoenix. Historical climate data for the park are hard to come by, making it difficult to calculate average or record temperatures, he said. But most of the region has seen above-normal temperatures in June — it was the hottest June on record in Phoenix, he noted.

“It’s been very hot across the region for the month,” Worley said. “So we can’t say for certain if we saw a daily record broken in the park, but it’s very likely that temperatures were well above normal throughout the month of June.”

And more heat is on the way, thanks to a large area of high pressure that’s expected to develop at sea and move over the West Coast and Great Basin later in the week, Worley said. Temperatures are forecast to approach triple digits by Wednesday and continue to climb through the weekend, he said.

Hot weather coincides with extreme fire conditions across Northern California, prompting Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to initiate public safety power shutoffs across 8 counties.

July 2, 2024

It’s reasonable to expect temperatures in the park to be eight to 10 degrees above normal for this time of year, as is forecast for elsewhere in southeastern California, he said. Conditions are also expected to be dry and, at times, breezy, with gusts that could reach 25 mph, he said.

“With those hot temperatures, very dry conditions and potentially gusty winds here and there, it looks like there could be some periods of elevated fire weather conditions in and around the park,” he said.


The conditions prompted the National Interagency Coordination Center to last week issue an advisory warning of the potential for rapid fire spread in California’s grass-dominated ecosystems, including deserts and dry valleys where the vegetation usually isn’t sufficient to support fire growth.

The weather service doesn’t expect to issue a red flag warning for the area encompassing Joshua Tree during the heat wave because the predicted wind speeds don’t meet the required thresholds, but people should still remain aware and take precautions to limit any potential fire starts and protect themselves against the extreme heat, Worley said.

As Joshua trees struggle with climate change, habitat loss and increasingly intense wildfires, California is scrambling to complete a conservation plan.

June 26, 2024

The closure comes after the human-caused Geology fire burned 1,033 acres in the Pleasant Valley area of the park in June and July 2023, tearing through Joshua trees and desert tortoise habitat. Officials said at the time that the fire was stoked by invasive grasses, which helped flames spread to larger plants.

Farther east, the York fire, which resulted from a spark accident involving power tools, burned more than 93,000 acres in and around the Mojave National Preserve last July and August, likely killing more than 1 million Joshua trees.

The beloved, slow-growing plants have a hard time repopulating areas after such disturbances, and climate change is narrowing the habitats where conditions are suitable for their survival. As a result, scientists have been working to identify places where they can continue to exist; Covington Flats is one of those areas.

“The Covington area is important for the long-term survival of the park’s Joshua trees,” Travaglio said. “It is one of the few areas they may be able to reproduce and survive under hotter, drier conditions in the future.”


The area was also closed over the Fourth of July holiday last year for similar reasons.

The rest of Joshua Tree National Park will remain open, but a full fire ban is in effect until Oct. 1, meaning campfires, woodburning camp stoves and charcoal grills are prohibited. Fireworks are never allowed on public lands, officials said.

A seven-story boulder on federal land has become a tinderbox of tensions over who gets to enjoy this patch of Mojave Desert, which has rapidly gentrified since the COVID-19 pandemic.

June 23, 2024