Rock Creek Fire causes evacuation, fear of new fire threat
Less than two years after forty Swall Meadows homes were lost in the Round Fire, this weekend’s Rock Creek Fire caused an evacuation of the community once again.
The fire began at approximately 3:45 p.m. on Friday, August 5, about a mile north of Swall Meadows, according to CalFire. The Inyo National Forest took command of the fire, which rushed through brush, cheatgrass, pinyon pine and juniper, according to Deb Schweizer, Public Affairs Officer for the Inyo National Forest.
Swall Meadows was evacuated on August 5, and that evacuation order was lifted at 6 p.m. on Sunday, August 7. The Old Sherwin Grade Road, which had been closed for fire efforts, reopened on Tuesday, August 9 at 6 p.m.
Cheatgrass, an invasive species introduced to North America in the 1800s, has taken over large swaths of the Great Basin, and its range has grown in recent years, exacerbated by fire. Cheatgrass grows quickly after a fire sweeps through an area, dropping seeds and outcompeteing native plants.
Most affected by the grass are “pinyon/juniper woodland, sagebrush, and salt-desert shrub community types” wrote researcher Eugene Schupp, who studies semi-arid environments.
“Cheatgrass completes its life cycle quickly and can become dry by mid-June…[thus] first are more likely to occur earlier in the season… Cheatgrass seeds drop prior to fires and will germinate with fall precipitation. This gives rise to dense, continuous stands that make additional fire ignition and spread more likely.”
Lee Vining resident and volunteer firefighter Paul McFarland spoke to The Sheet for its July 30 story, “Hot (Arc) Flashes,” and mentioned the speed with which the Marina Fire, which began the morning of June 24, grew due to the invasive grass. “During that initial response [at approximately 6:00 a.m.], the fire grew really really rapidly, almost tripling in size in 15 minutes,” said McFarland. “This was in June, early [in the morning], humidity high. You don’t expect fire to act crazy like that. I’ve never seen fire move that fast.”
McFarland said that the density of the cheatgrass now is much higher than it was five years ago. “It is really exploding across the Eastern Sierra and especially in the Mono Basin,” McFarland said. He said watching the Marina Fire grow so rapidly was a frightening reminder of the new reality in fighting fires on changed landscapes. Coupled with California’s crippling drought, cheatgrass has the potential to result in ever-more devastating fires which move quickly through a parched landscape.