Eastern Sierra on Edge as Fire Threats, Record Visitor Numbers Loom

Wendilyn Grasseschi
Times Reporter

“We've kind of gotten ourselves into a predicament here,” fire official says

Ed note: This is Part 1 in a series on the threat of fire and the expected impact of record levels of visitors this summer. In Part 1, fire managers outline the shape of the threat. Part 2, to be published on May 20, will address solutions and plans.

In about two weeks, the summer season takes off and by all accounts it is going to be a doozy.

Record-level visitation and demands on the Eastern Sierra are expected, if the current reservations in campgrounds and lodging, the filled-up bookings on recreation.gov, and the number of people already camping and visiting paint an accurate picture.

The incoming tide of visitors, while much needed and much appreciated by most, has triggered immense anxiety in Eastern Sierra communities living in a bone-dry region that is already ready to burn – and in fact, has already burned this year, with several fires burning small acreages in or near communities from Lone Pine to Mammoth.

Add to that the fear that still lingers after last summer’s immense Creek Fire, which did something even Covid could not; it almost shut down the region for months due to smoke and a closure of the Inyo National Forest. In addition, the Creek Fire’s northeastern border was only three to four miles from Mammoth by the time the fire was declared fully out (on Dec. 24) after a slow, steady advance which essentially kept Mammoth on the edge of evacuation orders for almost six weeks.

Thus the Creek Fire, along with several other large fires in the southern half of the Sierra, showed Eastern Sierra residents how close they were to disaster last year.

With the third driest year on record drying out even more every day, with the expected scores of Eastern Sierra aficionados chomping at the bit for school to end, local authorities say this year is likely to be just as bad.

The fire danger is one part of the reason why; visitor demands are another.

Last week, Inyo National Forest Fire Management Officer Taro Pusina told the Mono County Board of Supervisors why getting a handle on communicating with visitors is so imperative.

“So, as you all know, we've seen a meteoric rise in recreation use on the forest,” he said. “This year, we're already seeing more use than is average for this time of year. I think we actually heard from our colleagues over at BLM (the BLM is the federal Bureau of Land Management, which manages most of the Eastern Sierra’s lower elevation land not covered in forest) yesterday that they've seen 1,400 cars out at the hotsprings, during just an unprecedented drought.”

He said this kind of impact and use started early this year due to the easy access (no snow), the ability of more people to work remotely, fewer kids tied to school day schedules, lessening of Covid restrictions in California as the Covid situation improves and more.

The end result, as he said, is dozens and even hundreds of cars and visitors putting pressure on places like the Long Valley hotsprings; places like Wild Willies, Shepherd, Blue Tile Tub and more.

Backcountry trails are also seeing unprecedendeted traffic for May; at a recent trip to Big Pine Creek trailhead, the Times saw 40 vehicles parked in the overnight trailhead with hundreds of people headed up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek trail. In fact, the parking lot was so full, there was no room for many incoming cars to park, pushing them onto the side of the narrow mountain road.

This was on May 8 on a trail, while popular, has nowhere near the visibility Mammoth’s Lakes Basin trails or the Rock Creek area or other better known trails.

It is all a sign of things to come, numerous authorities have said in meetings in the past few weeks attended by the Times.

And, there is another issue that could make this summer a bit more tense; the fact that as many as 20-30 percent of visitors are expected to be first time campers.

“And so, we also know that a lot of these people who are who are coming to visit... are first time visitors to our to our big Eastern Sierra backyard, and we want them to have an enjoyable experience,” Pusina said.

But, there is hope.

The good news is a large group of residents and agency heads are taking the coming influx seriously, working in a group designed to address just this issue (see the story in the May 20 issue of the Times regarding this new “working group” and what they are planning on).

That said, the group is undeniably racing against the clock to get a comprehensive approach to managing the coming influx of visitors in place before the fire season really heats up.

For example, just in the past few weeks, prominent signs noting there is “No Camping” allowed at the Sherwins trailhead by the propane tanks sprang up at the entrance to the parking lot and according to the working group, there are plans to sign as many other areas in the Eastern Sierra with current rules as soon as possible.

Another challenge, however, is budget issues.

“We (the Inyo National Forest) is one of the largest forests (of 18 in the region) with some of the most recreational use,” Pusina told the supervisors May 11. “(And) we have the second smallest budget and staffing, which creates some challenges for us.

Against this backdrop, the coming fire season is shaping up to be as bad or worse than last season’s record-breaking fire season, he said.

Already, he said, “every day the sun comes out, the fuels are growing, the trees and bushes are growing, there's more fuel,” he said. This trend puts not just brush and forest at risk but homes and towns. Fires don't distinguish between homes and fuel that can burn,” he said.

The trend is also toward bigger, hotter, smokier fires.

“Coupled with warmer, drier weather, we're having much larger more severe fires and they're more destructive, and subsequently, they come with a lot more smoke,” he said. “Much of Southern California, including the southern portion of our forest, are actually setting records for dryness, with seven of the last 10 years significantly dry and drought,” he said. “We've seen that manifest itself in incredibly busy fires like we had last year no reason to think we were not going to have the same thing.
“So, we've kind of gotten herself into a predicament here,” he said.

“While proactive fire management can potentially reduce the loss to life and property or ecosystem function... we have to come to terms with fire and smoke, so the more we can do proactively on our terms, when conditions are favorable,” he said.

“If we've chosen to live in this fire environment, which just about every one of our communities is in, now we must learn to live with it. There's no turning fire and smoke off; it's not like a switch you can just turn it off.”

Stay tuned to part 2 of this article in the May 20, 2021 Mammoth Times issue, which will address the work being done by the multi-agency working group noted above.

There will be a Zoom “Community Conversation” Zoom meeting on May 25 at 5:30 p.m. addressing the expected impacts of the incoming wave of visitors, the threat of fire, dispersed camping, solutions and more.
Go to the Mammoth Times Facebook or stay tuned here for the link to the meeting, which we will post as soon as it is available.