This summer, way back at the end of July, when a lightning strike hit a tree in the forest east of Fresno, the Rough Fire began.
In the old days, when a fire such as this one would start by lightning strike, the Forest or Park Service would send out a small crew of 5 to 10 firefighters with their picks, packs and shovels and they’d put the fire out in a day or two. The total cost might be around $10,000.
But today, in this age of advanced knowledge of fire behavior, plus a focus on cost-savings in firefighting, these sane two federal agencies have settled on a mutual policy of treating a fire caused by lightning differently. Because lightning is a “natural” occurrence, the resulting fire shoiuld also “burn naturally.” This new policy allows fires tio burn so long as they do not threaten a community, structures or old-growth forest.
The theory is to reintroduce fire back into the forest ecosystem (a good thing) and to save firefighting money and resources (another good thing) through a policy of monitoring, with the idea of having the fire burn itself out either via topography or weather (rain).
Neither agency, however, will readily admit to the “let burn” policy. Instead, they use code terms like “managed fire” or “fire suppression.”
The Rough Fire has fallen under the “let burn” strategy, and unfortunately, Eastern Sierra communities never even considered at the outset have suffered the consequences of new management theory.
Because of the “let burn” experiment, almost seven weeks after the Rough Fire began, there are new evacuation orders in communities on the western border of the fire. Additionally, both the eastern and northern flanks of the fire continue to burn unabated. The size of the fire is now in excess of 160,000 acres – instead of the less-than-one-acre it could have been. The cost? It will likely exceed $70 million, versus the $10,000 it could have been.
I keep hearing that these two federal agencies can’t fight fires because they don’t have the budget and personnel.
Maybe it’s just a function of resource allocation. Those 3,300 firefighters on the Rough Fire could easily have been deployed elsewhere if they’d just put the fire out initially when they had a chance.
In a March, 2013 article in the Huffington Post, the Park Service admitted that “letting fires burn has its dangers.” This statement of the obvious was made in relation to a Lassen Park fire, where the NPS took a half-acre fire and turned it into 42-square miles.
That was another multi-million ($15 million) job.
The aforementioned issues do not even address the many other damaging impacts of “let burn.” What about smoke impacts to the health of Eastern Sierra residents and visitors? What about detrimental financial impacts to tourism?
People in the Sierra recognize that there will always be periodic fires. We can put up with that. But experiencing smoke for several weeks or even months should not be acceptable.
By definition, allowing both the USFS and NPS to continue the “let burn” policy is an admission by the federal government that it will hypocritically ignore its own Clean Air Act. More important, it’s a signal that the federal government has chosen to prioritize healthy forests over healthy people.
I can recognize why a very specific federal agency (USFS/NPS) might think this way, but I can’t imagine the overarching federal government would be supportive of a such a policy which results in the degradation of public health.
Finally, what about the health of all the critters and the animals in the forest? Their mortality rate is assuredly much greater under a “let burn” policy, never mind the massive destruction of the habitat these same creatures rely upon for survival.
Someone, anyone, please tell me there is a better way,
Is there a happy medium?
This issue (Measure Z) seems to be very divisive. People either love it or hate it. I see people separating, taking sides, casting negative thoughts about those who don’t share their personal views, and generally tearing this town and its spirit down. Relationships with friends may never be the same. People don’t trust their elected officials. Some people don’t trust the voters (the small percentage who actually vote). It’s not good.
I always had the feeling that Mammoth people loved their environment and others who shared their respect for the peace it gives them.
What is sad is that the issue is really all about money. The town wants money, the mountain wants money, the property owners want money, the rental agencies want money, cleaning and repair people want money, etc.
This is not why people came here. They left the dog-eat-dog living and the chaos of the business world to be in this environment.
Let’s all think of how we want Mammoth to look like in 10-20 years. Maybe there is a happy medium is this.
Sharing can be tough
Measure Z is a response to the challenge of a “shared economy” as imagined by Silicon Valley that depends on historically residential neighborhoods all around the world accommodating a new kind of traveler in order to make a profit.
Silicon Valley is not only interested in our neighborhoods, they are creating expectations in the minds of travelers as to what kind of accommodations they will find when they arrive in desired places like Mammoth Lakes. And they are succeeding.
These are serious, legitimate, and important issues for this community’s consideration: the ability of the Town to maintain its zoning laws and enforce its taxing authority; the effects on the availability of our very limited stock of long term rental properties for our workforce; the implications to our quality of life should our residential neighborhoods be transformed into ordinary opportunities for investment, and – importantly – the reputation of our visitor experience. The world is changing rapidly and right in front of our eyes. It is threatening to disrupt values cherished and deeply held by this community.
Within two months of an election in 2014, this Council chose to prioritize and take on this challenge, agreeing to “Tackle Single Family Residential Short-term Rental Decision on a Town-wide Basis” during a public meeting. The topic of single-family rentals was a hot topic during the council election campaign, and the focus of much public debate, with candidates repeatedly asked to clearly state their positions.
Soon thereafter, this Town Council invited public comment on its priorities, which included public criticism of its desire to take on the single-family rental issue at all.
Council subsequently directed staff to analyze a number of tasks essential for a robust and credible nightly rental program to regulate and enforce a potentially serious threat to the community, a threat for which there is no existing playbook, no easy way forward, which has cities and towns across the nation scrambling for solutions. At no time did this new Council consider, debate, vote on, or approve any expansion of nightly rentals into residential neighborhoods, nor any meaningful change to the zoning laws that strike the balance between residential neighborhoods and resort zones.
However – within six months of Town Council committing to directly confront a serious and significant challenge to our community, a group of interested citizens advised Council and the community that it had “…. filed paperwork to begin the initiative process to allow voters to approve any changes in single family rentals in residential neighborhoods.”
This initiative process is now called Measure Z, and it will change our General Plan. It will bypass CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) and the established and well-defined process for the public’s participation in our community’s decision-making. This is how initiatives work; they give extraordinary powers to voters organized around single, specific issues. Given a choice between simply “accepting” Measure Z or guaranteeing that every registered voter has access to the only opportunity this Council can provide to ensure that their voices are heard, this Council made the right choice: put the question to a vote. The cost of the election pales, the effort is inconsequential, so long as each and every voter of our community is guaranteed the opportunity to have their voice heard. As a Council member, I was elected to represent all of the voters in Mammoth Lakes. And I do. This community should not support narrowly focused initiatives, referendums, or actions of the Town Council that circumvent or “end run” the public process, and risk disenfranchising any voter in Mammoth Lakes. By putting Measure Z to a vote, this Council has demonstrated that we take our obligations to every registered voter in Mammoth Lakes seriously.
Four years of historic drought is not a good thing for a ski town and nobody wants to end up on the wrong side of a $50+ million dollar legal settlement. This community’s responses to these challenges are telling. We’ve just had our best summer ever. We are successfully compelling hundreds of thousands of people to travel and to experience our unique place. Businesses I’ve talked to aren’t just up 3% or 5% – they’re up 25%. We are demonstrating a stubborn resilience in the face of unprecedented adversity. Yet at the same time, we are failing to take advantage of our greatest strength. We are a small Town, and a small community. If we choose to, we can talk to each other. We can envision a future – together. We can work things out – together. We can take on our most difficult and vexing challenges efficiently, effectively – and together.
Why are we talking past each other and resorting to divisive means to address fundamental, predictable challenges?
The true legacy of the Mammoth Lakes Land Acquisition Lawsuit may be that it’s really not that hard to write a $2 million check every year for 20-plus years. Confronting the damage inflicted on the confidence, the trusting nature, the spirit of our community – that’s going to be the tough part. We cannot carry forward the toxic cynicism of that time. We must leave it in the dust where it belongs. Wounds we inflict upon ourselves and our public institutions that draw upon public anguish will only be self–inflicted.
Town Council is elected to engage with and “tackle” the challenges that come our way. This community does not need – and I do not believe it desires – leadership that evades the challenges of its unique future.
We must be vigilant when dealing with “… all enemies, both foreign and domestic….”
A multi billion-dollar company whose business model involves turning residential neighborhoods into hotel rooms could very well be considered a domestic threat. It’s okay to be afraid of Silicon Valley and be wary of their billion dollar speculations. It is not okay for us to refuse to talk to each other and refuse to exhaust every opportunity to communicate and to persuade our elected representatives as to what we think is best for the community.
That hasn’t happened here. If this community can’t exercise the most fundamental prerequisites of a democracy, then maybe somebody needs to call Mono County and let them know that we’re through, that after 30 years, we no longer believe in the institutions of representative government, and would they consider taking us back.
On October 7, we’ll wake up and digest the decision we have made. No matter the outcome, there will be work to do. And the only work that will matter is the work that we do together. I recognize and support the very real concerns of members of our community as articulated in Measure Z. I will do everything I can to not only maintain but enhance the integrity of our residential neighborhoods. But to my mind, Measure Z is the sad retelling of a familiar tune here in Mammoth Lakes, one that we must leave behind if we are ever to truly move forward. The rallying cry is clear: “The Town Council Cannot Be Trusted.” I get it. We all get it. But we can no longer afford any easy cynicisms; a little humility is probably in order. I cannot support how we are going about this, and I will vote No on Z on October 6th.