Swall Meadows Fire Triggers Fear, But This Time, No Homes Burn

Wendilyn Grasseschi
Staff Writer

At first it seemed like déjà vu.

Once again, there was a spark of fire, there was a wild wind blowing through the small community of Swall Meadows, there was a rush of flames up the hillside, there was fire dancing and swaying to the wind.

Once again there were the frantic calls to 911, the sound of sirens, the whistle of community alarms, the convergence of engines and water tenders and firefighters from all over the county on little Swall Meadows.

But this time, things turned out differently.

This time, a fire that started on the afternoon of Monday, March 21 on some private land at the north end of Swall Meadows – cause probably a debris pile burn that smoldered for a few days unknown to the property owner, then was sparked by the wind, according to the Inyo National Forest – was stopped after consuming less than two acres. This time, no homes burned, and this time, the fire that had Swall folk readying for evacuation again was out by sundown.

That outcome is a far cry from the 40 homes and 7,000 acres burned during the terrible Round Fire of February 2015, a very far cry, and Fred Stump, the community’s county supervisor and the man in charge of structure protection during the Round Fire, could not be happier.

“The whole community of Swall is breathing a sigh of relief,” he said. “After what they have been through, yes, they are on edge about fire.”

Things could have been much worse. Like Feb. 6, 2015, the day the Round Fire started, the winds were erratic and very strong, possibly gusting up to 50 mph, he said. Like that day, too, the area had no snow cover.

But this time, nature cooperated a bit more, although before it was over, dozens of engines, water tenders, a few hand crews and even a helicopter had been ordered, most of which were turned around when the fire was able to be contained.

That is the way it should be, Stump said.

“They came in early and hard, and then some had to be sent home, but that’s the way it should be,” he said. “That’s what we hope for.”

Firefighters from the Wheeler Crest, Paradise, Crowley Lake, Bishop, Lone Pine, Independence, Mammoth Lakes and the state of California responded to the 3:45 p.m. call for help, he said, allowing firefighters to put the small but active fire out relatively quickly.

But even though it could have been much worse, Swall Meadows, a small community of a few hundred people, has yet to recover from the Round Fire, which was the most destructive fire in Mono County history. Although many of the area’s long-term residents are rebuilding, Stump said most people who lived in the area part time or had second homes in Swall have chosen not to rebuild. Big chunks of the area remain are scarred and black, with every tree burned to bare trunk and branch.

It will be a generation or more before the previously pinyon- and Jeffrey pine-shaded homes and meadows of Swall look anything like they did before the fire, if ever.

The fire also affected the county’s already meager coffers, through the loss of property tax revenues, Stump said. Property owners whose homes burn are exempt from paying the property taxes they would have paid if their home had not burned; instead they pay property taxes on only the “bare dirt” they own, he said.

The Round Fire was not even the first significant fire to affect Swall; just during Stump’s 30 years as a fire fighter and fire chief (before he was a county supervisor), the Round Fire was the third big fire to affect the region; it was preceded by the Birch Fire of 1991 and before that, another large fire in the early 80s, both of which posed imminent threats to the community but were averted.

So it was with a well-earned sense of relief that Swall Meadows residents went to bed Monday night, knowing the Sky Fire was out.