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Fire and hubris

June 22, 2012

There is no natural reason for people to live in Mammoth Lakes. None. But we live here anyway because we like to have seasons loaded with fun.

We ski. We hike. We climb. We ride bikes, drive off road, pull fish from the water and then do it all again.
We pay a price to live here, though, and the price tag varies depending on the bill Mother Nature whips up in her ledger book.

This summer the price tag has to do with fire—indiscriminant, deadly and entirely natural. Wendilyn Grasseschi’s story, beginning on Page 1., captures the situation.

Without humans here, nature could take its course in staying thin and healthy by unleashing the occasional raging wildfire.

We’re reminded of what happened before our very eyes a few years back.

We were driving northbound on U.S. 395. The air was supercharged with electricity. Ominous clouds drifted down from the moraines across the highway from the airport.

Then, there was a stupendous flash/crash/smash, and for a moment we were knocked a little bit woozy. A lightning bolt had dropped from the sky and zapped the hillside.

We’d always sort of figured that a lightning bolt would strike like it does in the picture books. The bolt would hit the ground in a kind of pinpoint, and whatever fire it might cause would emanate from that single spot.

In this case, what we saw wasn’t a bolt of lightning, it was a sheet of lightning, perhaps a half-mile wide. When it hit, the whole hillside caught fire right then and there.

It was nature’s way of reminding us to not build so close to the hillside; that it’s not our property. Rather, it is nature’s cathedral—her domain.

This season, conditions for wildfire are at their most severe in many years.

The National Forest Service thinks it’s ready. So, too, do the Mammoth Lakes Fire District and the Long Valley Fire District.

There is more equipment on the ground now than at any other time we can think of: Trucks, crews at the ready, choppers, chainsaws, hoses and protective gear are within reach.

We happen to think that our Fire Chief, Brent Harper, has done a great job in getting us ready for this. It wasn’t just this year, either.

Over several summers, Harper and his crews have thinned dangerous forest within the town, while at the same time, crews from the National Forest Service have been thinning the Inyo.

If you want to see what the forest should look like in its natural state, go north of Mammoth along the highway and see just how far apart the trees really are.

Not so in town, though. The more we’ve built, the more hazardous our slice of the earth has become.
We’re crossing our fingers and hoping against hope.

If a half-mile-wide bolt of electricity zapped us, things could turn upside down in a hurry.

The thing is, Mother Nature never really lets you know when her bill is going to come due.

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