The town of Lee Vining narrowly escaped devastation this past weekend in the Marina Fire, but the Tioga Lodge and High Sierra Brine Shrimp plant saw the fire come much too close for comfort, and a historic barn built from Mono Mills wood went up in flames.
“Honestly, the Tioga Lodge is so lucky to be there,” said Hillary Hansen-Jones, whose family operates High Sierra Brine Shrimp. She grew up on the shores of Mono Lake. “I drove up to the Mobil on Sunday for the first time and I was just crying the whole way. You see a view your whole life and then all of a sudden it’s gone.”
Tom Crowe, who runs Mono Lake Kayak Rental, said all his kayaks were fully booked the morning the fire started, June 24. Crowe lives on the northeast side of Mono Lake, and has a “panoramic view” of the Eastern Sierra. He woke on Friday and began making coffee with a friend who was going to help him with the day’s tours. “Suddenly my friend said, “what is that?’ And I got the binoculars out and there were two points of flame coming from the road underneath the power lines.”
Crowe, who is retired from the Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife, has been running his kayaks on Mono Lake for over 14 years. “It’s basically my livelihood right now,” he said. He and his friend headed towards the Tioga Lodge, where he stored his kayaks in the almost 100-year-old barn that once served as an auction house back when the road was built between Bridgeport and Lee Vining.
Crowe also was a helitac foreman in Alaska, as well as having spent over a decade carefully watching the weather around Mono Lake to ensure the safety of his clients. He’s seen fire behavior, he said, and he knows the lake’s weather patterns. Though there wasn’t much wind when the fire started, he knew that might change over the course of the day.
He spent the morning watching the fire from down by the lake, and around 10:30 “I walked up the road and everybody was gone—they had evacuated everybody from Tioga Lodge!”
“I’m going through my head as to what I’m going to do if I see the wind change,” he said, “and at about 1 p.m. the wind shifts and comes from the south just like it does every day. And then the fire started to jump one gully to the next. It was then I started running, grabbing my kayaks and pulling them down to the lake.”
He managed to get all ten of his kayaks away from the lodge. “I left my paddles and stuff in a bare spot under a tree and I just got out of there.”