Fire on west side of Sierra crest funnels smoke to Eastside

January and wildfires don’t usually go together, even in sunny temperate California, but with a drought winter following the driest year on record, that means things are different.

Seven wildfires are burning in the state—some of them thousands of acres—and the Sierra Nevada is no exception.

Eastsiders don’t typically expect wildfire smoke during winter, but an almost 700-acre wildfire that has been burning on the west side of the Sierra crest (west of Olancha) since Jan. 15 and the fire has begun to funnel smoke into Mammoth and the Eastern Sierra.

The fire, called the Soda Fire, is not being actively fought, but monitored, according to fire officials, meaning it could be some time before it is out.

The fire is burning on the Sequoia National Forest, which lies above Porterville, in the foothills and mountains of the Sierra range, according to fire officials.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, but there have been no lightning strikes in the region.

According to officials at the local air pollution control district based in Bishop, the incoming smoke has added to the already hazy skies that have plagued the region for much of the past six weeks. Officials said the hazy skies are a product of the stubborn high-pressure ridge, which is responsible for holding winter storms at bay and trapping weeks of wood smoke and other pollutants over the Eastern Sierra.

Until recently, the smoke from the fire stayed mostly on the west side of the crest, but earlier this week, the wind patterns changed and the smoke has begun to shift north and east, sometimes into the Owens Valley and sometimes, right over Mammoth Pass and into Mammoth.

“It has been blocked from reaching us since it started, but the wind pattern is changing a bit, along with the fact that the fire is getting bigger and putting out a bigger column of smoke,” said Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District air quality specialist Jon Bucknell.

He said there are no changes predicted in the weather patterns for the next few days, meaning the Eastern Sierra may continue to suffer from some incoming smoke from the fire, or until it is extinguished.

Air quality, however, has not reached anywhere near the depths it reached during the Aspen and Rim fires, Bucknell said.

The wood smoke pollution, while unusually persistent due to the stagnant air brought about by the high pressure ridge blocking incoming storms, has also not reached any levels that the district considers to be unhealthful at this time, he said.