Creek Fire danger diminished – but not gone

Wendilyn Grasseschi
Times Reporter

What a difference a week makes.
Last Thursday when the Times went to press, Mammoth residents and firefighters were on high alert following a two-day forecast for extremely low humidity and high winds that could well have pushed the Creek Fire dangerously close to town.
This Thursday, while the town and surrounding area is not fully out of danger, the likelihood of the fire triggering evacuations has significantly decreased due in large part to an unexpected, two-day bout of light rain Thursday and Friday of last week as well as much lighter winds that had been in the forecast.
At the same time, the huge fire, coming it at about 280,000 acres at press time, is now the sixth largest fire in the state’s history and, there is a heat wave in the forecast for next week.
As such, it is still too soon to relax fully, firefighters said at a recent Creek Fire update this week.
“We still think the natural barriers that the fire is now in or approaching, including the large expanses of granite rock, the lighter fuels (brush and trees) density, and the fact it is almost October will hold this fire in check but it is too soon to fully relax,” firefighters said during a Tuesday evening “Creek Fire Community Conversation.”
They urged Mammoth residents to remain fully alert and, as always, to have a personal plan for themselves and their families to evacuate, just in case the fire does manage to bypass the natural barriers that have slowed it down.
That said, there are a series of reasons the fire is not the same threat it was on Sept. 17, firefighters told the hundreds of people at the Zoom meeting.
One, the northernmost part of the fire and the part of it closest to Mammoth at about 12 miles away as the crow flies, is heading toward an old burn located high above Reds Meadow called the Lions Fire (old burns have very little fuel in them and thus delay the march of new fires). The fire is now burning inside the old burn scar but firefighters told the audience that it has shown little ability to expand out of the old burn, due to the lack of fuels, the large amount of rock obstacles in the old burn area and, the fact it is now almost the end of September.
“The longer nights and shorter days mean the fire has less time to heat up fuels during the day and more time for things to cool down at night,” they said.
Two, if the fire gets through the Lions Fire burn, it would run into the high and rocky granite ridges of the Ritter range, which create a barrier between the fire and Reds Meadow and Mammoth and which would be very difficult to bypass.
Thirdly, another other active finger of fire in the northeastern edge of the huge Creek Fire - the area that firefighters were most worried about in terms of the danger it could pose to Mammoth – has essentially stopped growing and the fire is now “hung up” on the south side of the South Fork of the San Joaquin River where it was continuing to burn brush and trees right down to the river’s edge – but stopping at the edge.
Had the fire crossed this river and managed to climb up out of the steep canyon, as was feared was possible during the Red Flag conditions in the forecast last week for Thursday and Friday, it would have had a much easier route to threaten Mammoth because there is a long slope of unburned brush and trees between Reds Meadow and the San Joaquin. It was in this area that firefighters had set up two more “Management Action Points” or MAPs, which, if bypassed by the fire, would trigger increased actions to suppress the fire before it got closer to Mammoth, or trigger evacuation/planning for evacuation. Neither of those MAPs had been reached at press time.
That is where the unexpectedly light winds and the unexpected rain and humidity last Thursday and Friday, instead of the forecasted high winds and low humidity, were so critical. The lack of wind meant the fire was unable to throw “spot fires” across the river and as such, the fire did not advance to the northeast and toward Mammoth.
According to local Mammoth Lakes Fire Chief Frank Frievalt, another plus for Mammoth is that the longer the fire burns along the other side of the river, the more it burns up fuel on that side of the river and the longer that this “black,” as firefighters say, cools off, the bigger the black burned border on that side of the river gets. If the fire now starts to head northeast and jump the river, or throw spot fires across it, it will have a much harder time than if this cooling and burning had not occurred. That increases chances it will not jump the river and begin a run up to some forested slopes.
Fourth, next week's forecast is for relatively light winds and that will help prevent the fire from becoming super feisty.
So, firefighters said Tuesday, these are the main reasons why this fire is less dangerous than it was seven days ago.
That said, temperatures are expected to rise this week and no one can take this fire lightly, they said.
“You live in the forest and it’s still fire season,” said Mono County Sheriff Ingrid Braun. “You have to be ready for this, you have to have a plan.”