On Monday, July 29, the Mono County Public Health Department released an announcement that the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (GBUAPCD) had issued a Stage 1 Health Advisory for Mammoth Lakes and Southern Mono County, as hourly pollution levels exceeded the threshold for an alert for the first time. The pollution levels were created by the heavy amount of smoke pouring into Mammoth from the Aspen Fire.
The fire is located within the Sierra National Forest in Fresno County. As the crow flies, the fire is about 20 miles southwest of Mammoth Lakes. The South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team is in command of the Aspen Fire.
Monday’s release stated, “Over the last 12 hours, particulate pollution levels reported from monitoring equipment in Mammoth Lakes have been in the ‘unhealthy’ range, while in Bishop and the Mono Lake area they have been in the ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’ range.”
The report explained some ailments that could be brought on by the heavy smoke, and also provided ways to avoid these ailments. This included a warning that “People with heart or lung disease (including asthma), the elderly, children, and pregnant women should AVOID prolonged or heavy exertion. The general public should limit prolonged or heavy exertion as much as possible.”
People in Mammoth, however, seemingly continued to exercise. The most obvious example of people powering through the smoke to get their workouts in, were the southern California high school running teams in town at their usual time of year. Some in town joked that because they were from the Los Angeles area, the runners were used to exerting themselves in the smog, so the smoke wasn’t bothering them. In all seriousness, however, it seemed like a bad idea.
“These kids having been running since the first week of June, so they’re in really good shape,” said Lalo Diaz, the Head Cross Country and Track Coach for Loyola High School of LA, one of the approximately 20 schools bringing its students to Mammoth for high altitude training.
The 33 students from Loyola arrived in Mammoth on Sunday, July 28 and planned to stay through Wednesday, Aug. 7.
“We have curtailed some workouts, and flip flopped some workouts,” Diaz explained. For example, when The Sheet spoke with him on Wednesday morning the smoke in the air had been less heavy so the group had done a more intense workout that had actually been planned for Thursday.
“We’re trying to make the best of it,” Diaz said. He explained that it was the school’s 27th high altitude visit to Mammoth.
He said that he’d received very few complaints from the athletes, who range in age from 15-18. A few had slight headaches but found that taking a nap cleared them up.
“Two kids are asthmatic so I just sat them down for one workout on Tuesday as a precaution,” Diaz said. The runners usually participate in two workouts per day, generally held in the mornings and in the evenings.
Reportedly, some of the schools were taking their students over to June Lake for some workouts in order to escape the smoke.
Elite running coach, Andrew Kastor, had the same idea and said he had been taking his elite team north to Deadman’s Summit and the Mono Basin, trying to avoid the smoke at all costs.
“I wouldn’t have my cross country team out there,” Kastor said, describing the combination of heat, altitude and particulates as a mix that is difficult on the body.
“It shouldn’t be an issue if you’re running an easy pace,” he said. “It becomes a problem when you are using your lungs at 100 percent.”
When asked about the runners, Dr. Richard Johnson of Mono County Public Health Officer said, “They are presumably all young and healthy, so not in a high risk or sensitive group. However, when the levels of particulate matter get pretty high, it can even affect them, although not typically in a serious way, e.g., maybe sore throat, runny nose, watery itchy eyes, a slight cough, etc. Anyone of them with asthma needs to make sure they have plenty of their medication available such as their inhaler, and of they periodically use steroids, this might be a good time. They also should seek medical care if they start to be symptomatic and unresponsive to their usual medication protocol.
“Whether or not a team comes up and runs is a judgment question only the coach and admin can decide. All we do at this level of air quality is to make recommendations. Things would have to be much worse before we would issue mandates, e.g., school lockdown or closure, cancellation of events, etc.”
At the time of this posting the Aspen Fire had burned 17,791 acres and was 45 percent contained. Smoke continued to blow in and out of Mammoth.