It is the first week of summer and the Eastern Sierra is almost 50 percent drier than average for this time of year.
A bark beetle infestation on June Mountain and in the Sherwin Range above Mammoth stands red and dry as an old bone. It won’t take much to start a fire there.
An unprecedented invasion of cheat grass up and down the Eastern Sierra valleys and rangelands (this began five years ago in response to changes in weather and/or climate patterns) exploded even more last year, after the historic wet winter of 2010-11. The now-dry grasses carpet vast areas of the Eastside that firefighters once thought immune to fires.
A century of misguided federal fire suppression policy has left the Eastern Sierra full of historic levels of fuels—trees, grasses, and vegetation that can carry fires from one place to another fast—and as prone to fires as the rest of the country.
And it’s only June.
“It’s August out there right now,” said Mammoth Lakes Fire Marshall/Division Chief Thom Heller. And it’s not just a local problem.
“We are seeing fire events in places now not seen in recorded time,” he said, pointing to the series of massive fires in the Reno area, to a giant fire still burning in New Mexico, to another in Colorado. No one has ever seen fires like these, he said, not in these places at this time of year, not this big.
Jeff Iler, the Fire Management Officer for the Inyo National Forest and the Bishop Bureau of Land Management Interagency Fire Center, is equally blunt.
“The number of Red Flag warnings we have already had is unprecedented for this time of year,” he said. “The Palmer Drought index has given the Eastern Sierra a rating of Extreme Drought and fuel moistures are at historical low levels. A 20-year average is 12 percent. Last year, it was 13 percent. This year, we are at 7 percent.”
Iler watches over a giant landscape stretching from the Conway Summit area to Olancha and the hotter, drier southern end of his area of responsibility, in particular, has seen fire danger explode due to the invasive cheat grass noted above.
“And the John Fire, in Lone Pine last year, was carried by cheat grass. A few years ago, that fire probably could not have happened.”
He echoed Heller.
“Even a big log could burn right now, if ignited with a cigarette. That doesn’t normally happen (larger fuels, like large logs, can typically resist ignition from small sources, if they are not bone-dry like they are now). It’s August.”
The National Weather Service predicts this summer will be drier than usual. Temperatures have already been several degrees warmer than normal—how many times has Mammoth almost hit 90 degrees in June—and even the normal monsoons that sweep up from the Gulf of Mexico that bring rain to the Eastern Sierra in late June and early July are a question mark.
It all comes down to one thing.
“Everyone is going to have to do their part,” said Heller.
“Even something as simple as doing yard work, hitting a rock with a shovel and creating a spark that jumps into dry grass could start a fire now,” he said.
Lightening starts about 70 percent of fires in the Eastern Sierra. The rest are human-caused. It’s imperative residents and visitors are aware that even things they normally can “get away with” are no longer safe to do.
“Parking your car with a hot catalytic converter on top of grasses, like the cheat grasses, could start a fire now,” said Iler. “The John Fire was started by a weedwhacker. Cutting wood with a chainsaw up in the Mammoth area could start a fire if you are not careful.”
But all is not lost. Even with the admittedly dangerous potential for fires this year, Iler is not ready to cry doomsday.
“There are always so many factors we don’t know about,” he said. “I’ve learned that just about the time we say it’s going to be the worst fire season ever, something changes and the fire season drops out.”
But he also is not taking any chances.
“We have been fully staffed and geared up for months, now,” he said. “The interagency fire program has nine engines, two water tenders, three handcrews, one light helicopter, and nine patrols currently on.”
And the Eastern Sierra has a big ace in its pocket this week that it didn’t have a few weeks ago: two big firefighting aircrafts.
“In addition, we have requested and have just received confirmation that a Type 1 Helitanker (Sikorsky SkyCrane) and a Single Engine Airtanker (SEAT) will be positioned at the Bishop Airport Reload Base for the fire season, starting this week,” he said.
Only four such helicopters (the Sikorsky is a giant helicopter) have been recently added to the federal fire fighting resource base, according to a national press release, so it’s something of an honor to host the plane.
The Sikorsky and the airtanker are both used to dump fire retardant on fires, considered to be one of the most effective ways to fight wildfires.
That doesn’t mean the aircraft are for the Eastern Sierra’s use only. They are a federal resource and can be sent wherever they are most needed.
Heller, too, is guardedly optimistic. He and Mammoth Lakes Fire Chief Brent Harper and the rest of the department firefighters are responsible for all of the land within the boundaries of Mammoth Lakes, as well as south to the airport and north to the Crestview rest area. Other volunteer-driven fire departments, like Lee Vining and Long Valley, take over for their respective “spheres of influence.” If a fire begins on community or private land, the local departments are the lead agency. If it begins on federal land, the forest service and BLM—Iler, in other words—are in charge.
For the past decade or so, the Mammoth Lakes Fire Department has been working with individual property owners to create “defensible space” around private homes and businesses—an area between 10 feet and 100 feet wide around a building that is relatively free of vegetation that can carry a travelling fire. Other local fire departments have done the same.
Their efforts are beginning to pay off, Heller said.
“We have done a lot of work in the Mammoth area already that will make it much harder for an incoming fire to start a home on fire,” he said. In addition, the fire department and the forest service have been reducing fuels around the community, clearing brush from places like Mammoth Creek, removing dead and down trees from the edges of the community, and more. Mammoth’s close brush with a big fire, the Rainbow Fire 20 years ago this summer, was a wakeup call and it’s been heeded, he said.
It’s an ongoing effort that will never be completely done, he said, and no one believes it is cheap. It’s not. It’s labor intensive and slow.
But the alternative is to not do it.
In that case, property owners are taking a risk.
“We do a kind of triage, if a fire is imminent,” Heller said. “If there are three homes at risk and one doesn’t have any defensible space around it, that’s the one we are least likely to be able to save. So if resources are limited, we will save the homes that the property owner cares enough about to do the work.”
He reiterated what he said earlier.
“Everyone is going to have to do their part this summer.”