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High elevation fire above Independence reveals drought

March 20, 2014

A wildfire at about 9,000 feet elevation in the mountains above Independence that started late last week-cause still unknown-should be impossible this time of year, but the drought has stripped the high Sierra of its normal snowpack, leaving it uncharacteristically vulnerable to fire the first week of spring, 2014. Photo/Submitted

A wildfire west of Independence—at about 9,000 feet elevation—this past week is only one sign that the drought’s grip on the Eastern Sierra has not weakened in any appreciable way.

The fire, called the Blackrock Fire and located in the high country above rugged Division Creek and Sawmill Canyon (near Sawmill Meadows,) was first reported on March 14 and didn’t grow beyond an acre.

However, the fact that a fire was possible at such an elevation in early March in the high Southern Sierra backcountry, which is normally under more than a dozen feet of snow, could be a sign of things to come if the dry winter gives way to a dry spring.

The cause of the fire had not been identified at press time, according to Inyo National Forest officials, but since there have been no lightning strikes in the past few weeks, it is likely to have been caused by human activity.

The Eastern Sierra is not the only place fires are popping up in places when and where they have rarely historically popped up.

According to the state’s Office of Emergency Services, there have already been 730 fires in the state since Jan. 1 (65 of which were in the past week), and have burned about 1,600 acres.

North of the fire, in Mammoth, the snowpack has inched up to 16.6 inches of water content by mid-month—roughly translated to about 16 feet of snow since the winter began—but the warm days are beginning to take a toll, and without more snow this month, the number could actually decline, according to state data.

By contrast the average moisture content for the Mammoth Pass, where the  measurements above were taken by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, should be about 39 inches for mid-March.

The average snowpack across the entire Sierra range—an average of all the regions from the mountains north of Lake Tahoe to Lake Isabella—is about 28 percent of normal for the date, making Mammoth’s paltry 16.6 inches and 42 percent of normal for the date positively glowing.

The chances of the situation changing grow slimmer every day.

 “Despite above average rain and snow in February, much of California has received only about 50 percent of normal precipitation for this rainy season,” the state noted in its weekly “Drought Brief” on Monday, March 17.

“Heavy rain and snow would have to fall throughout California very frequently from now until May to reach average annual rain and snowfall levels. Even with such precipitation levels, California would remain in drought conditions due to low water supplies in reservoirs from the previous two dry years.”

There may, however, be some relief in sight.

For the past few weeks, the chatter in the meteorological world has begun to point toward a likely El Niño event beginning this year, perhaps even as early as this summer or late fall. El Niño events are characterized by a certain degree of warming in the Pacific Ocean, warming which has often—although not always—triggered a wet pattern for California.

A recent chart released by the National Weather Service this week points toward a growing possibility of such an option, although with the caveat that things could still change that forecast in the next few weeks.

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