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UPDATED 3-25: High elevation fire above Independence highlights second driest winter on record so far

March 25, 2014

This small fire high above Independence, started for an unknown reason on March 14, should not even be possible in a normal winter when the 9,000-foot site of the fire would be covered in more than ten feet of snow. The fire did not threaten life or property and was monitored to be sure it did not spread. Photo/Submitted

Note: This story was printed in the Mammoth Times on March 20 and was updated on March 25 to reflect new information.

A wildfire west of Independence at about 9,000 feet elevation that started in mid-March is only one sign that the drought’s grip on the Eastern Sierra has not weakened in any appreciable way.

Although the most recent forecast calls for rainy and/or snowy weather during the next six days, with as much as a few feet of snow possible on the Sierra crest, it would take that much snow and rain for the next two months nearly every other day to catch up, according to state data.

The fire, called the Blackrock Fire and located in the high country above rugged Division Creek and Sawmill Canyon and near Sawmill Meadows, started on March 14 and didn't grow past a half acre in size.

However, the fact that a fire was possible at such an elevation in early March in the high Southern Sierra backcountry, which is normally under more than a dozen feet of snow, could be a sign of things to come if the dry winter gives way to a dry spring.

The cause of the fire had not been identified at press time, according to Inyo National Forest officials, but since there have been no lightning strikes in the past few weeks, it is likely to have been caused by human activity.

The Eastern Sierra is not the only place fires are popping up in places when and where they have never historically popped up.

According to the state’s Office of Emergency Services, there have already been 730 fires in the state since Jan. 1, (65 of which were in the past week) and have burned about 1,600 acres.

North of the fire, in Mammoth, the snowpack has inched up to 16.6 inches of water content by mid-month—roughly translated to about 16 feet of snow since the winter began—but the warm days are beginning to take a toll, and without more snow this month, the number could actually decline, according to state data.

The average moisture content for the Mammoth Pass, where the measurements above were taken by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, is about 39 inches for mid-March.

The current snowpack's water content is still higher than the driest winter on record—1976-77 where the total water content was less than ten inches—but at this time, it is coming in as the second driest winter on record.

The average snowpack across the entire Sierra range—an average of all the regions from the mountains north of Tahoe Lake to Lake Isabella—is about 28 percent of normal for the date, making Mammoth’s paltry 16.6 inches and 42 percent of normal for the date positively glowing.

The chances of the situation changing much this year grows slimmer every day.

“Despite above average rain and snow in February, much of California has received only about 50 percent of normal precipitation for this rainy season,” the state Department of Water Resources stated in its weekly “Drought Brief” on Monday, March 17.

“Heavy rain and snow would have to fall throughout California very frequently from now until May to reach average annual rain and snowfall levels. Even with such precipitation levels, California would remain in drought conditions due to low water supplies in reservoirs form the previous two dry years.”

There may, however, be some relief in sight for the coming winter.

For the past few weeks, the chatter in the meteorological world has begun to point toward a likely El Nino event beginning this year, perhaps even as early as this summer or late fall. El Nino events are characterized by a certain degree of warming in the Pacific Ocean, warming which has often—although not always—triggered a wet pattern for Southern California. Because Mammoth Lakes lies right on the boundary between Southern and Northern California on meteorologist's maps, forecasting for the Mammoth area is notoriously difficult.

But the El Nino phenomenon, should it strengthen as predicted, gives the Eastern Sierra its best chance in years at a possible change in the dry pattern that has set so many records for the state of California.

A recent chart released by the National Weather Service this week points toward a growing possibility of such an option, although with the caveat that events could still change that forecast in the next few weeks and months.

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