Creek Fire keeps Mammoth on edge; town plans for the worst but evacuation still considered unlikely

By: 
Wendilyn Grasseschi
Times Reporter

As of today, Thursday, Sept. 17, a giant 244,000-acre fire called the Creek Fire was still moving slowly toward Reds Meadow and the Mammoth area, but at press time, there were no evacuations ordered nor were they any projected evacuation orders or warnings in place.

However, a Red Flag Warning for critical fire weather was set to go into place Thursday afternoon and last into Friday night, with projected southwest winds as high as 70-90 mph on the ridges of the Sierra and lower wind speeds at lower elevations. Due to that, according to Mono County Supervisor Fred Stump, who is a former Long Valley Fire Chief for the Crowley area and a long veteran of other fire departments, said he had news that out-or-area firefighters were moving into the Mammoth area Thursday, as a precautionary measure.

"Related to the Red Flag Warning, I was advised this morning (Sept. 17) that Creek Fire management will be deploying additional fire fighting resources into the Mammoth Area," he said in an email Thursday morning. "I was not advised of numbers or types of resources. If you are in Mammoth and see those, it does not mean that the fire has crossed either of the two trigger points for evacuation warnings or orders (see more on trigger points below). This is a proactive move, looking at the weather forecast. The latest fire behavior models, so I am told, do not indicate that the fire will reach a trigger point but the wind will increase fire activity and smoke production. If you hear rumors or see posts on social media that are not coming from an official source please back check them on the County website Creek Fire information page (see below). Staff time has been dedicated to keeping this page as current as possible.

"I have been asked questions about the fire progression maps which show consistent fire growth to the east and north. Those maps are useful information but do not indicate conditions in the fire's potential path that will effect it's spread. Those conditions include terrain features such as areas of rock outcroppings, fuel type or continuity changes, or old fire scars. This is not new to those familiar with fire behavior. All of these are between this fire's edge and the trigger points. They were referenced in the Tuesday night virtual meeting. The recording of that meeting is now available on the County website. Having said this, wind can overcome any obstacle."

The nearest edge of the fire, which started near Shaver Lake almost two weeks ago in the middle of a historic heat wave, was about about 13-15 air miles from the Town of Mammoth and the terrain between the fire and the town is some of the most rugged and extreme terrain in the Sierra; it is composed of the massive, 14,000-foot-plus-high Ritter Range; the 10,000-foot-plus-high Silver Divide area and, the deep canyons of two forks of the San Joaquin River located several miles below Reds Meadow Valley.

That said, the massive Creek Fire has a possible, if unlikely, route to reach Mammoth – a thickly forested area below the western side of Mammoth Pass, where the slopes of Mammoth Mountain drain down into Reds Meadow and the San Joaquin River canyons. At least one finger of the massive fire had reached the lower elevations of the canyons at press time.

That proximity, along with a forecast for a west/southwest wind event (the fire is southwest of Mammoth) this Thursday and Friday, and a critical fire weather warning from the National Weather Service, means the Creek Fire “has our complete attention,” said Mammoth Fire Protection District Chief Frank Frievalt this week. “We do not think the fire will reach us, we do not expect to have to evacuate the Town of Mammoth, but we need to be proactive,” he said. “This fire has acted in unprecedented ways and, yes, this fire has our full and complete attention.”

To that end, he, civic leaders, the members of Mammoth and Mono County’s Emergency Operations Center team (already in place due to Covid-19), local Inyo National Forest firefighters and the Shaver Lake area-based managers of the giant fire have been in constant contact since the fire broke out last week, working on plans should the fire take a run too close to Mammoth, trying to “harden” Reds Meadow facilities such as the Reds Meadow Resort and the Devils Postpile National Monument and Ranger Station, against a possible incursion of the fire.

“The Creek Fire remains well on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada,” said Mono County Supervisor Stacy Corless Wednesday afternoon. “Fire managers are preparing for eastward movement of the fire as winds increase this week. They have plans in place for the very unlikely scenario that the fire could cross the mountains into Mammoth Lakes. At last night's fire update, they told us that “Management Action Points (MAPs)” are set at locations between the fire and Mammoth; should the fire reach the MAPs closest to Mammoth, our emergency responders would put evacuation plans in place.”

Those MAPS are certain locations on the fire managers maps, such as a ridge above Fish Creek and other MAPS. Should the first MAP be reached, fire managers will begin to talk about how to implement evacuations; should the second MAP get reached, the managers would get more serious about starting the evacuation warning and implementation plans they are now developing.

That said, most firefighters the Times spoke to still think the chances of the fire triggering an evacuation of Mammoth, or burning Mammoth, were slim at press time.

However, it is no time to be complacent, they said.

“We live in a forested area and it is fire season and fires are acting in completely unprecedented ways. Have a plan, you need to have a plan, not just in case the Creek Fire comes too close, but for any fire or emergency,” said Mono County Sheriff Ingrid Braun.

Fred Stump, a former Long Valley (Crowley Lake) area Fire Chief and now a Mono County Supervisor, summed up an hour’s worth of a Creek Fire Community Conversation, held Tuesday night on Zoom and attended by more than 1000 residents and others, with these main points.

• Evacuation planning for the Town of Mammoth Lakes, not anticipated as being needed, is being done. If it comes to this, the Town will use all four lanes of S.R. 203 to get people out of Town. The Scenic Loop Road will be used to get emergency equipment into Town.

• There is no threat to June Lake, Crowley area, Toms Place / Sunny Slopes, Swall Meadows, Paradise or Round Valley in Inyo County.
• The winds are expected to increase on Friday. SCE had advised of a potential PSPS event; it has been cancelled.

• Reds Meadow area has had portable tanks, portable pumps, and hose prepositioned in case embers from the fire cause starts there. There has been a crew from the incident that has been doing additional work around the structures in Reds to help protect them if needed.

• Trigger points have been established east and north of the fire edge. One of those points will be used if an evacuation warning is to be issued. There is another trigger point for an evacuation order. The fire is still miles away from both. There are numerous granite formations, reduced fuel areas, and old fire scars between the fire and the trigger points.

• Use caution when hearing about landmarks such as creek or mountain names. Many areas use the same names for their features. For example, there is a Bald Mountain close to the fire. I am also aware of Bald Mountains on the Sequoia National Forest as well as the one locally.

• There is no evacuation being considered due to unhealthy air from smoke impacts.

• Covid remains a threat. All evacuation planning is being done with a Covid safety component.

• No more firefighting resources are being requested from the local area by Cal OES. What is left, primarily from local volunteer Fire Departments, is being kept available should something happen locally. The Incident is preparing to deploy resources here but, until those resources arrive, what is here locally is what there is. The public needs to be mindful in daily activities not to create another incident that would draw those resources down even further.

• If you have concerns that you might be evacuated, please prepare a "go" bag with essential items so you are ready.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE
• The Mammoth Times' Facebook page is updated daily, often hourly, on all things Creek Fire and many other issues, such as Covid-19 during emergency or high risk situations. Go to https://www.facebook.com/Mammoth-Times
• Mono County has now placed a “Creek Fire Information Page” link on the County Home Page. It will be updated every day, with multiple updates during the day. Look under the "Spotlights" category. A link to sign up for "Code Red" Mono County emergency notification system via your cell phone is also included on the Creek Fire Page. Go to on.mono.ca.gov/creek-fire

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