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Drought brings ‘double whammy’ heat, fire danger

July 3, 2014

The next two weeks are shaping up to be the two hottest weeks of the high country summer and there is little relief in sight, forecasters say.

Although Mammoth is unlikely to break any records, it will be close, according to Chris Smallcomb, a meteorologist with the national weather service in Reno.

“You will get within a degree or two of breaking records, likely,” Smallcomb said.

The hottest days will likely be the first three days of July and then the first three days of the second week of July, he said.

The drought conditions in Mammoth and the Eastern Sierra have exacerbated the heat in kind of a “double whammy,” he said.

“The soil is so dry right now, it heats up very fast,” he said. “That causes the air to heat up faster each day, and to get hotter, than if the soil had more moisture in it. When the soil is damp, the air evaporates the moisture first, then begins to heat up the soil, then the air. So with a drought, not only do we get it heating up faster in the day, but also temperatures can climb even higher.”

The other factor pushing the heat increase is the lack of snow cover in the high country.

“White reflects more heat than dark rock, so when the snowpack is gone, the soil and air can heat up faster and to a higher temperature than if there was still snow on the ground,” he said.

In a “normal” summer in Mammoth—a summer after Mammoth Pass has received about 40 inches of precipitation, instead of this past winter when it received about 19—the high mountains often do not melt out enough to allow access to areas above 11,000 feet until late June or July.

This year, the same elevations were accessible in early June—a boon for hikers but something likely to spell real trouble to the ecosystems of Sierra high country lakes, creeks, and to wildlife if the summer monsoons don’t appear this year.

Mammoth lies in the path of a summer pattern that can produce monsoon-driven rain and thunderstorms that come up from the Gulf of Mexico—sometimes.

Some summers, the whole monsoon thing is a bust.

Smallcomb isn’t putting any money on relief from the heat or the dryness anytime soon.

“There is some indication the monsoons are coming into Arizona and the southwest now,” he said. “Will they get far enough north to reach you? I wouldn’t count on it, at least not in the immediate forecast.”

Of course for Mammoth, “hot” is a relative thing; anything above 80 is likely to bring out a sweat on Mammothites.

The hottest days will be accompanied by strong afternoon winds and sometimes thunderstorms during the afternoon.

In other words, fire season is in full swing.

“Ongoing drought conditions and well below average rain and snowfall this past winter have led to very dry conditions for this time of year,” said Inyo National Forest Supervisor Ed Armenta. 

“These conditions can create an active fire season here in the Eastern Sierra. We have experienced 15-plus fires already and numerous Red Flag Warning days.”

Campfires (outside of campgrounds and approved, developed fire rings) and fireworks are now prohibited in much of the Eastern Sierra, with the exception of some high backcountry areas where campfires—but not fireworks—are still allowed if they are not banned due to current regulations, said Deb Schweitzer, the Inyo National Forest’s public information specialist.

“We did begin restrictions last week due to the dry conditions,” she said. “This year, however, we did make some exceptions. The Eastern Sierra is such a diverse place, with so many different elevations, that is didn’t make sense to prohibit fires everywhere, so in the wilderness areas, where fires are not already banned due to elevation regulations, fires are still allowed (see box below for details).”

The forest might go to full fire restrictions, including in the wilderness areas now exempt, if dry conditions continue, Schweitzer said.

The country north of Conway Summit has already implemented restrictions, according to federal officials. The forested areas north of Conway Summit—Virginia Creek, Green Creek, Twin Lakes area, etc.—are managed by the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest, which banned all campfires everywhere except for in developed campgrounds, in May.

Smoking outside a vehicle, welding or using a torch outside and/or using an explosive of any kind are also prohibited on the Toiyabe forest.

FIRE RESTRICTIONS

 

  • NO CAMPFIRES, briquette barbecues, or stove fires are allowed outside of designated developed recreation sites and specifically posted campsites or areas. 
  • Persons with a valid California Campfire Permit (available free of charge at any Ranger Station or Visitor Center) are not exempt from the prohibitions but are allowed to use portable stoves or lanterns using gas, jellied petroleum, or pressurized liquid fuel.
  • NO FIREWORKS. It is prohibited to possess or discharge any fireworks.
  • NO SMOKING, except within an enclosed vehicle, a developed recreation site, or while stopped in an area at least three feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable material.
  • NO WELDING or operating an acetylene torch with open flames, except by permit.
  • NO USE OF EXPLOSIVES, except by permit.

 

EXEMPTIONS:

nInyo National Forest wilderness areas including; Hoover, John Muir, Ansel Adams, Boundary Peak, White Mountains, Golden Trout, and South Sierra.  Resorts, pack stations, recreation residences and other sites operated under special use permit from the U.S. Forest Service or BLM may be exempt from the special orders, as long as any fire activity is conducted in compliance with their permit. 

nSpecial use permit holders should contact their permit administrator to make sure they are on the list of exempt sites, or check the information for special use permit exemptions on the Inyo National Forest Website, www.fs.usda.gov/inyo. 

 

For further information, please call Isabel Kusumoto at 760-872-5057 or Deb Schweizer at 760-873-2427.

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