Hot, dry weather makes for extra long fire season


Crews start fire prevention work in Mammoth, June

Fire season has begun in the Eastern Sierra, a month earlier than normal.

The combination of a dry winter, especially for everywhere north and south of the Mammoth Lakes region, and an unusually warm, dry spring have pushed the normal fire season up to include May, local fire officials said.

“Everything is accelerated,” said Mammoth Lakes District Fire Chief Brent Harper. “It’s like June out there right now.”

Fire crews up and down the Eastside are gearing up early, he said, getting ready for wildland fires.

The news is especially grim in Inyo County where the winter snowpack barely registered at 40 percent of normal and was lower in some areas.

The spring weather has not helped. Normal spring snow and rain have been held at bay by a persistent high pressure ridge.

That, in turn, has plunged California into a dry pattern for the past four months and has funneled almost every storm to the Midwest and East Coast according to Mammoth amateur weather forecaster Howard Sheckter.

That pattern does not seem likely to change any time soon, he said on Tuesday, April 30.

“It looks like it will hold at least into the middle of May, perhaps longer,” he said.

It is a pattern similar to the one that blocked almost every winter storm since January, he said.

The unusual heat this spring hasn’t helped the fire season either.

This past Sunday, Bishop broke a record, registering 93 degrees—two degrees higher than the previous record set in 2007.

Barring major changes in the long dry spell, the fire danger in the Eastern Sierra will remain very high, Harper said.

But there are some things that can be done to lessen the fire danger.

The biggest one is simple prevention; people being extremely careful.

“People need to begin clearing away from their homes, creating that defensible space now,” he said. “It’s not a good year to put it off.”

“You can’t have a fire without a source of ignition,” said Ron Riise, the Mammoth Ranger District/Inyo National Forest Service’s assistant fire management officer and battalion chief.

“Fire season can go any way right now. We could have monsoons that drown out every lightning strike. The weather could change. But the one thing we can control is our activity. Campfires can already spread far more easily than normal. This is the time to be extra careful.”

A much larger scale project to prevent catastrophic fires is also underway in the area—and work on it and another new project will intensify this summer.

“We have a new 1,000-acre thinning project near the Town of Mammoth Lakes, along with a continued thinning project with the Mammoth Lakes Fire Protection District for some of the private property in Mammoth,” said Sue Farley, the Inyo National Forest’s and Bishop Bureau of Land Management’s vegetation management.

Another, similar fire prevention project is slated for some federal land near and in June Lake and for all of the community’s private property beginning this summer and continuing for as long as five years, she said—the first such large, fire-prevention project for the community and one that she said has been vetted and supported by the community’s residents.

“Thinning” in this case means two things—manually cutting back or removing brush (small fuels) away from homes and communities and cutting back or removing trees (large fuels).

The work this summer, funded by federal grants or the Forest Service, will be most visible in four areas around Mammoth; one, in the Old Mammoth area; two, to anyone who hikes, bikes or drives Sherwin Creek Road; three, from the gravel road that parallels Mammoth Creek on the north side of the creek; and four, near the junction of S.R. 203 and the Scenic Loop Road.

The three roads have been selected as important firebreaks that can help protect the town of Mammoth in the case of a wildland fire. By thinning the sides of the roads some distance out (100 to 150 feet), the strength of the firebreak is increased, Farley said.

A similar thinning process is already underway in areas south of Mammoth, near the community of Crowley Lake, for example.

Thinning projects will also be visible to anyone hiking the Fern Lake to June Mountain Ski Area Main Lodge area in June Lake, where an unusually high concentration of trees and brush present the biggest fire danger to the community at this time, she said. That project will be done in cooperation with the June Lake Fire Prevention District, she said.

All of the projects noted above are multi-year projects, she said.