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Where there's fire, there's smoke

September 13, 2010

Smoky days likely
to continue; all
burning canceled
for rest of season

Eastern Sierra residents have been hit hard in the past few weeks by smoke from a big fire on the Westside, and it’s not over yet.

Although cooler days accompanied the latest storm system that moved into the Sierra beginning Wednesday, the same storm system came with strong winds blowing west from the San Joaquin Valley.

That means smoke from the 4,875-acre Sheep Fire located in Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park will continue to move into the Eastern Sierra for some time, unless there is a change in the wind’s direction.

The smoky air has violated both state and federal standards for air quality several times in the past few days, with the greatest violations in the Owens Valley.

“It violated state standards in Mammoth earlier this week and violated both state and federal standards in Bishop and Independence several times over, several different times,” said Ted Schade, Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District’s director.

The number of particulates in the air has at times reached 180 micrometers of particulate matter (PM-10) in some places, with the federal standard being set at 150. State standards are even stricter; 50 micrometers is considered a violation of state standards.

Schade is losing patience with the smoke, even as he understands why the park service allows the fire to burn.

“I’m letting them know we’re tired of our skies looking like Los Angeles and that this is becoming a health hazard,” he said. “We (Great Basin and other air pollution control districts in the area) pitched a fit and reminded them that the standards are there for a reason. They sometimes forget there are about 25,000 of us living over here. But that’s all I can do. If there was even an inch of that fire in our district, I could give them a ticket. But I can’t.”

The good news is that there should be less smoke than before, given that the cooler temperatures mean fire activity is slowing down, according to park spokeswoman Debra Schweizer.

“Temperatures have been in the nineties and they are expected to go down into the seventies for the next few days,” she said.

The park service is aware of the problems on the Eastside and is considering them as they do fire management plans, she said.

There is still no estimated date for the fire to go out, since it is being allowed to burn unless it threatens human safety or property. The fire is being monitored but allowed to burn by park officials for three reasons, Schweizer said.

One, it was started by lightning and is considered to be a natural occurrence. Two it is not threatening any structures or human life.
Three, it is considered to be a good way to get rid of more than a century’s worth of dead and down trees and brush, the result of years of fire suppression. One hundred years of fire suppression policies are now being re-evaluated and this fire is helping to thin a dense forest that could later burn in a catastrophic manner.

This “overstocked” forest also makes for a smokier than usual fire, Schweizer said. “From the perspective of forest managers, this fire is doing everything we could have hoped for.”

Tuesday, Sept. 7, was the biggest day of growth for the fire so far, she said. On Tuesday Eastern Sierra residents got a lungful as the fire added another 500 acres. Its previous growth rate had been more like 200 acres a day, average, Schweizer said.

Another small fire also added to Eastern Sierra residents' misery. The Buckhorn Fire is a five-acre fire that started late last week behind the Minaret Range in the North Fork of the San Joaquin River drainage. That fire is being monitored but is not being actively suppressed because it is in a wilderness area, Inyo National Forest Service officials said.

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