Officials announce big tree thinning for Lakes Basin; project to begin in 2014

Twenty years after the Rainbow Fire blew hot embers from Red’s Valley into the very outskirts of Mammoth, Inyo National Forest officials said it is time to reduce the fire risk in the Lakes Basin.

Beginning next summer with a series of informational give-and-take meetings with public, the Forest Service said it would begin thinning the basin woodlands in the summer of 2014.

It is a very large project, said Sue Farley, the forest’s environmental planner, who will lead the ramp-up to the actual cut-and clear efforts.

“We’re going to try to minimize the impact for visitors by doing a lot of the work at the end of the season, when many people using the forest have gone home,” she said.

“That doesn’t give us a very big window, so we might have to do the project over several years.”

Farley said resort owners and people who have property in the Lakes Basin already have done a good job of providing defensible spaces around their spots. But, she said, the large project—the forest itself—needs to be thinned.

“If you go up to the Lakes Basin now,” she said, “you can see old western white pines with fire scars at their base,” she said.

Those fire scars indicate that in the not-so-distant past, fire was a regular presence in the basin, back before fire suppression became the prevailing technique to handle wildfires.

In the 100 to 125 years since, the once-open forest has filled in with all kinds of conifers, in one of the most populated summer-visitation areas in Mammoth.

That situation has danger written all over it.

“The Lakes Basin is the wildfire gateway into the Town of Mammoth Lakes,” she said, “and the town needs defensible space. There has been a lot of work around the perimeter of town, but not in the forest itself.”

She said it is critical because there are many people who use the plethora of campgrounds and the five lakes for all kinds of things, be it fishing, hiking, climbing, or just hanging out in the pristine wilderness areas.

The problem, she said, is that they are essentially trapped in a fire emergency.

“It’s a one-way-in, one-way-out area,” she said, with Lake Mary Road the only escape route.

Farley said there has already been good research on the fire potential from such people as Dan Dawson, the overseer of the Valentine Reserve.

In the 1992 Rainbow Fire, the scars of which still are plainly visible to the west of Mammoth Pass, Dawson reported to Farley that he helped extinguish spot fires in the Valentine Reserve, caused by embers floating in the prevailing winds.

This is not just a matter of thinning trees, however, Farley said.

Much of her work as a planner is to help the forest conform to guidelines set down by the National Environmental Protection Act. She also will identify any archaeological sites before the tree thinning can begin.

The plan for the forest thinning was made public on Wednesday afternoon, when District Recreation Officer Jon Kazmierski notified the Mammoth Lakes Trails System Coordinating Committee at its meeting in Suite Z.

The news took Mammoth’s public works director, Ray Jarvis, by surprise, along with everyone else in the room, including John Wentworth, executive director of the Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access (MLTPA) Foundation.

Kazmierski said the impact on the visitor experience will be noticeable. Among other things, so-called “user trails,” those trails that are not maintained but have been used by people for generations, would likely “be obliterated.”

But with proper information gathering, Farley said, “everyone should be on the same page by the time the work begins a year from next summer.”

That is, unless the forest burns down in the meantime.