The fuels reduction project designed to thin out the forest to improve wildfire safety is currently taking place in the Lakes Basin from Twin Lakes to Horseshoe Lake and even past Lake Mary all the way to Coldwater campground.
“We normally get a wind from the southwest so a fire could be pushed through the Lakes Basin towards Mammoth Lakes,” said Eric Vane, the North Zone Vegetation Planning Manager for the Inyo National Forest, in summarizing the rationale for the project.
In preparation for the project, Vane and his team modeled the effect of a forest fire in the area with different densities and locations in the basin. “It is a balance between being effective with the treatment of the forest and keeping the forest looking natural and healthy,” he said.
The modeling led to the creation of a map that outlines what type of treatment work will be done and where. The contractors have a team of a little over twenty, and they go through the forest cutting down trees with a diameter less than a specified size. In some places, that number is eight inches and other areas require all trees with a diameter under 12 inches to be cut down.
Due to lessons learned from the ‘Rainbow Fire’ in 1992 that originated six miles below Devils Postpile National Monument, there is a 50-60 acre section of trees starting at Horseshoe Lake and extending towards Mammoth Mountain that will serve as a “fuel break” to inhibit fires coming from Red’s Meadow area. The rest of the fuel reduction project will function as a thinning of the forest. Some people don’t want trees cut down, but as the President of the Fire Safety Council, Dave Easterby put it “I ask those people if they weed their yard.”
Vane says the forest in the Basin is “unnaturally dense.” Apparently, in the late 1800s, local shepherds would annually set fire to the underbrush of the forest so when they came back the next year there would be fresh grass for their livestock to eat. Once the shepherds stopped shepherding in the early 1900s there was a pulse of regeneration that led to an extremely dense forest.
Based on U.S. Forest Service research, the Lakes Basin had a small- to moderate- size fire every 20 years or so. This killed some of the smaller trees and shrubs allowing a naturally healthy forest.
According to Vane there hasn’t been a fire since 1909, meaning the Lakes Basin area has missed out on about five fires that would have kept it at a more natural density.
The forest needs pruning.
According to Vane “This level of density can lead to fires that firefighters can’t fight because it [conditions] would be too extreme.”
When a forest is too dense, plants have a tough time competing for resources. And trees without access to nutrients can’t produce enough sap to fight pine beetles off.
The fuel reduction project aims to take away trees that have been killed by pine beetles and create a forest that is healthy enough to fight off the invasive bug.