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Fire season could be ‘worst in 100 years’

June 24, 2013

Prescribed burns, like this one outside of Mammoth, help to thin or clear brush and grasses that could carry fire into the developed areas of Mammoth and other communities; it is another tool that firefighters can use to protect local communities. Photo/Wendilyn Grasseschi

California and Eastern Sierra face record-breaking dry conditions

The wildfire near Mono City Tuesday was a wake-up call to what the rest of the summer is likely to hold for the Eastern Sierra and the state of California, according to fire officials.

Southern California state and federal fire officials warned that the state should take caution during a brutal fire season that projections suggest could be the worst to hit the region in a century, according to an NBC story that ran on June 17.

Projected weather conditions—“a menacing mix of warm, dry Santa Ana winds and scant rainfall—are at levels we have not seen in many, many years,” according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Director Ken Pimlott, who was quoted in the NBC story.

“That is the case across all of California.”



The fires are “expected to wreak extensive havoc across wide swaths of the state, endangering lives and natural resources,” Pimlott said.

Officials are bracing for roughly 2,600 fires across 51,000 acres—a 75 percent increase from the annual average over the last five years, according to the story.

The Eastern Sierra, especially the northern and southern Sierra, is in for its fair share of danger, local officials said.

“We are already in the 90th percentile on a scale we use to measure potential fire danger,” said Tim Dunfee, the acting fire management officer for the Inyo National Forest.

“The scale measures how ready things are to burn and when it reaches the 90th percentile or above, that is when we, as firefighters, know to expect and prepare for a big fire season, one like 2003 or 1997—some of the years the state has burned the most.”

He said another model, used to measure the amount of moisture in sagebrush, is breaking all-time records for the third week of June.

Rain, if it comes this summer and no matter how much might come, won’t change that prognosis much, he said.

“We don’t have an ecosystem here that greens up when it rains,” he said. “When something is dead, it’s dead. Rain might slow down a spark from a fire, be it lightening-caused or man-made, but the fuels are so dry, the rain will only have a localized effect.”

The bottom line is conditions now are similar to how they would be in July and August.

It also means there is more time to have more fires. In other words, there is a much greater chance of a bad fire season because it has begun so early.

Mono County received more moisture than much of the rest of the state, due to the storm patterns this past winter that broke through the Sierra crest and gave Mammoth Mountain and the local area about 80 percent of normal snowfall. That gives the area immediately adjacent to Mammoth something of a buffer—but not much, Dunfee said.

North of Bridgeport and south of Bishop, the region is in a state of severe, or worsening, drought, said Deb Schweizer, the public affairs officer for the forest. Bad as the season might look, there are ways to lessen the risk.

“The fire near Mariposa (the source of the smoky skies of the past few days and at 1,800 acres at press time and threatening 800 homes) was due to a runaway campfire,” she said. “Most of the fires this season have been human caused or related to human activities. As such, they generally happen where people are concentrated, and that affects even more people (unlike a wilderness lightning-caused fire).

“Make sure your equipment has a spark arrestor, be careful where you park your cars—cars begin a lot of fires—be careful with campfires, and there are no fireworks allowed on Inyo National Forest Land,” Schweizer said.

The fire that started Tuesday near Mono City is an example of how easy it is, already, to start a fire—even in a relatively wetter Mono County, she said. Although that fire was caught early and only grew to five aces, it spread fast through brush and grasses.

The exact cause of the fire is still under investigation, but Schweizer said it is believed a power line spark might have started it.

Inyo National Forest Service vegetation specialist Sue Farley is betting that an unprecedented level of multi-year  “defensible space” (firebreak) programs around the county’s most heavily forested communities—June Lake and Mammoth Lakes—will kick off this summer and will at least begin to lower the odds.

Walker, Coleville, Mono City, Swall Meadows, Crowley Lake and other communities already have firebreaks in place or in process too, Farky said.

“We are beginning a 4,500-acre-multi-year federal and a 500-acre private land thinning project in June Lake and we are extending the defensible space programs already in place in the town of Mammoth Lakes to outlying areas, like the Scenic Loop Road area and the Sherwin and Mammoth Creek roads,” she said.

The programs will use both private fire departments and federal and contracted workers and will consist of clearing or mowing targeted brush and trees—anything that can carry fire easily—from areas in and around communities and residences, she said.

For example, clearing ten smaller trees from around one home could well save a home in the event of a fire, if the trees were the “right” ones and were selected carefully. The same goes for brush, grasses, and other fuels.

The best way to stop a fire from spreading, Farley said, is to make sure there is enough space between each source of potential fuel to prevent the flames from leaping from one fuel source to another. If there is enough air between grasses and brush, or brush and trees—or even on the branches of a tree—to stop or slow the spread of flames, a fire could be slowed, if not stopped, she said.

This kind of labor-intensive thinning program is already underway in some parts of June Lake and Mammoth Lakes, she said (for details of the projects that might affect you, see sidebar).

The money for the projects comes from federal grants and the program will be administered by the local community fire departments and the forest service.


WHERE THE FIREBREAK ACTION WILL BE THIS SUMMER

 

JUNE LAKE

  • Down Canyon area: Near the Double Eagle Resort and Fern Lake trailhead. There are many dead and down trees and closely spaced trees in this area, making it the highest risk area in the community. The trees are already being flagged so crews know which trees to take down, Farley said. The actual thinning will probably begin next summer, she said, and it’s expected to take about two years to do the first 100 acres. To do the entire 4,500-acres selected in June Lake could take between eight and 10 years. The thinning project boundaries have been done under consultation with the property owners in the community, she said.

 

MAMMOTH LAKES

The same kind of program is already underway in and around Mammoth Lakes, and has been for several years. That program is expected to be on going for many more years, according to Mammoth Lakes Fire Chief Brent Harper, and like the new programs that will begin in June Lake, the current Mammoth programs have been done in consultation with the local community and property owners.

This summer, areas outside of Mammoth Lakes proper will be added:

  • Scenic Loop Road: There will be a 1,000-acre thinning project near the junction of the Scenic Loop Road and S.R. 203, Farley said.
  • Sherwin Creek Road: The brush along the road sides will be thinned back between about 100 and 150 feet from the center of the road, Farley said. The project will be re-mowed about every three years.
  • Mammoth Creek Road: The gravel road that parallels Mammoth Creek on the north side will get similar treatment to the Sherwin Creek Road, she said. Both roads are popular with hikers, dog-walkers, and recreationists, and Sherwin Creek Road has a campground on it.

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