Pictured: A rare photograph of the skies in August 1992 from Badger Lake south toward Mammoth. Minaret Summit is under the cloud of smoke, as is Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. (Photo courtesy Keith Dawley)
On its 20 year anniversary, a look back at the ugly fire with a pretty name
Under normal circumstances, Aug. 20, 1992, would have been just another Eastern Sierra summer day. But as fate would have it, 20 years later that particular day is forever etched in the area’s history as the official trigger date of the Rainbow Fire, a pretty name for what was one of the largest, most threatening blazes Mono County, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, the Inyo National Forest and the greater Mammoth Lakes area has ever seen.
The Rainbow Fire began burning about 6 miles below Devils Postpile national monument, not far from Red’s Meadow and Rainbow Falls, hence the name. It was the result of what fire officials now say was a “perfect storm” for such a conflagration. Years of below-normal snow and rainfall, a hot summer, the location along an upslope and the remote location provided fuel and ripe conditions. All it needed was a spark. During the days leading up to the fires, a series of violent, fast-moving weather fronts blew through the area, leaving behind little rain, but lots of lightning strikes, one of which touched off the Rainbow Fire.
By Aug. 21, constant winds at between 30 and 60 miles per hour fanned the blaze, expanding it to more than 8,000 acres in 24 hours. “Embers can travel miles ahead of the fire front,” said Debra Hein, Bureau of Land Management Fire Management Specialist. “Often you don’t know about smaller, spot fires until you find them.” Spot fires were caught just 3-4 miles north of Mammoth Lakes, and just above Sledz and near Chair 14 at MMSA. “It was headed for the Mammoth Pass in the direction of Mammoth Lakes.”
This year, with numerous fires in four states requiring thousands of firefighters, the conditions are similar to those of 20 years ago, according to Mammoth Lakes Fire Department’s Thom Heller, who was on scene for the Rainbow Fire. Interagency Fire Manager Jeff Iler noted that manpower was at first “pretty thin” for fighting the Rainbow fire, though teams later arrived from all over the U.S. and even Puerto Rico.
Heller remembers crews working 24-hour shifts cutting lines around the fires, but beyond a certain point, the winds ruled the day. Air support crews were grounded and those firefighters on the front lines could only hunker down and wait for a break in the weather. “It’s very similar to 20 years ago,” Iler agreed. “This time, there’s not a lot of SoCal activity, but there is in Northern California and across the Rockies.”
Meanwhile, engine companies were stationed to protect the MMSA Main Lodge, and more were based out of Tamarack Lodge charged with making sure the fire didn’t reach the Mammoth Lakes area. In town, local Mary Canada said she recalls seeing the glow from her hot tub. “We put some valuables and essentials by the door, just in case of evacuation,” Canada related. “Neighbors were hosing down their roofs and taking other preparatory measures. They took it seriously, as well they should have.”
She also recounted the community dinners held by Robin Stater, at which folks could commiserate about what might happen if fire reached the town.
Richard Perloff with the U.S. Forest Service said the fire burned through the chaparral near the point of origin, and then hit the nearby red fir timber. Paul Meyers, also with the USFS, said he saw flames estimated at the time to have climbed as high as 300 feet. “We could work the flanks, but couldn’t hit it with a frontal assault,” he said. “The whole valley was on fire.”
The fire either destroyed or threatened as much as 80% of Devils Postpile National Monument, and crews falling back helped wildlife as best they could along the way. Firefighter Ron Riise recollected subduing a bear (via tranquilization) and helping save its life during the early retreat.
A crew estimated at about 1,200 persons battled the fire, which wasn’t declared contained until Sept. 16. In the end, the Rainbow fire consumed 8,200 acres of Forest Service land and another 600 acres of National Parks Department land. Included in the equipment lost: Engine #22, which was caught in a fast-moving fire front and was melted.
Mop up and rehabilitation went on for another 3 months until the snow finally arrived that winter. A bit of trivia: the blaze wasn’t declared officially “out” until April 1993. Erosion control was part of the effort that included removing partially burned or fallen tree remains, blasting out root bases, and aerial seeding to help reforestation. Decades later, some of the charred landscape that looks almost that looks almost like walking on an alien world is starting to be replaced by new vegetation.
“Fire is integral to the ecosystem,” Perloff said. Iler said it reinforces the concept of defensible space, which he maintains has been proven by research, and adds to the safety of both people and property.
“Prescribed thinning and burns are also important to help get the natural balance back,” Iler went on to add. There are exceptions, however, he acknowledged. “Certain endangered species are still judgment calls for various agencies. Take the sage grouse, for example; sage brush is a valued ecosystem for certain wildlife. On the other hand, some fires are left to burn themselves out based on predetermined needs or lack of proximity to inhabited areas.
Some, according to Iler, prefer to see ecosystems remain unchanged, which he thinks is not realistic. “It’s all gonna burn eventually,” he stated. “You can try to save the piñon trees, but they’ll be replaced by brush some day.”
“We have to think outside our limited life spans, and imagine what things looked like 1,000 years ago and what they’ll look like 500 or 1,000 years from now. Whether we’re dealing with a huge fire or a more mosaic one, the present is only a snapshot in time,” Scott Kusumoto with the USFS commented.
Hein indicated another challenge we face is the growth rate. “There have been more homes put up here in the last 50 years, and even in the last 20 years,” she and Iler pointed out, especially mentioning Crowley, which has almost quadrupled in size during the past two decades or so. That, Hein said, means planning has to be mandated for inhabited areas to strategically deploy resources and manpower. “The old idea of a fire truck in your front yard shouldn’t be considered possible anymore,” she said. “Otherwise you end up spending lots of money to fight losing battles.”
Today, several of those who were on the front lines then say the anniversary of the fire is a good reminder that we live in an area that is both beautiful, but also potentially dangerous. “There was the 1987 Mammoth Fire, the Laurel Fire … those were wake up calls,” Heller said. “The 1992 Rainbow Fire was clearly a wakeup call, and in recent years let’s not forget the Sherwin Fire. It’s easy to forget.”
Iler added he’s concerned about the next two years, in the wake of the Blowdown event last November, which he said increased fire fuel loads.
Heller and Hein advocated being proactive. “Don’t wait until an incident,” they said, suggesting using building with more new, fire-resistant materials and participating in Fire Safe Councils among other measures.
On thing many of those involved at the time remember clearly, though, was a spirit of community, which supported the crews as they worked, and also pulled together. “There was an incredible sense of survival afterward, and of a job well done,” Heller concluded.