Fires are raging up and down the west coast, raining down ash, forcing evacuations, literally obliterating whole towns and leading to the unprecedented action of the United State Forest Service closing all 18 National Forests within California.
California currently has more than 20 wildfires raging with 3 of the 5 biggest fires in the history of state occurring right now. The August Complex, a collection of 37 fires burning up Glen, Lake, Mendocino, Tehama and Trinity Counties, holds #1 on this size list at a whopping 471,185 acres. As of September 10, that incident was 24% contained.
For the Eastern Sierra, there are three fires burning close enough to civilization to warrant close attention: The Slink fire, the SQF complex and the Creek fire.
If you’re in Mammoth wondering where the smoke is from, it is likely the Creek Fire due to prevailing winds changing directions.
The Creek Fire clocks in as the seventeenth largest fire in California history with a total acreage of 175,893. The fire started September 4 due to unknown causes in the Big Creek drainage area between Shaver Lake and Huntington, California.
The fire has jumped fire lines and has been characterized as a “plume-dominated” blaze,
where the upward blowing smoke allows a vertical transfer of heat causing extreme fire behavior (such as fire tornadoes which have been captured on radar).
Creek Fire is 0% contained and is being managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Fresno County Sheriff and Madera County Sheriff. At an emergency Mammoth Town Council meeting on Tuesday, September 8, Gordon Martin, the USFS District Ranger in Mammoth, said there is a trigger point along the fire’s route to Mammoth which would place Mono County and local Forest Service representatives in Mammoth Lakes on the unified command team.
For now, Creek Fire has Mammoth Lakes on evacuation notice. Not a warning, but a notice.
At the same Tuesday meeting, both Martin and Mammoth Lakes Fire Chief Frank Frievalt seemed to believe the likelihood of the fire spreading this way was low primarily due to the rugged terrain it would have to traverse as well as the winds generally blowing to the south if not the southeast.
Neither ruled out the possibility, however, and said we should be prepared for the worst-case scenario. On Thursday, winds shifted ominously to the west and started blowing smoke (and possibly the fire) toward Mammoth Lakes.
The Creek Fire has destroyed 361 total structures (including homes) thus far. 1,400 people are assigned to this fire.
The Slink Fire is relatively small, at roughly 23,000 acres, and fire suppression efforts have led to 36% containment.
The fire’s proximity to Walker and Coleville make it noteworthy. The fire prompted the USFS to shut down the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. It also prompted the Bureau of Land Management to issue a closure order for the fire area.
At Tuesday’s briefing in Mammoth, Frievalt told town staff, “The resources are tight. They are facing wind from the north, and the priority is keeping the Southeast portion of the fire from spreading.”
Frievalt continued, “[They] want to protect Coleville, Walker and the Marine Warfare Training Center.
Frievalt told Council that a fire “complex” is defined as a series of lightning strikes that come together to form a larger fire. This is the case for the Sequoia (or SQF) complex located about 25 miles north of Kernville.
The 67,529-acre fire (12% contained) has been described as a nuisance to deal with.
“The focus is on that southwest flank of Ponderosa, near Camp Nelson,” said Deb Schweizer, the Inyo National Forest Public Affairs Specialist. “Over and over and over again we are having fire crews have to defend that line. That is where the fire wants to grow.”
“At first there weren’t a ton of resources being allocated to this fire,” said Schweizer noting that other fires in the State were affecting bigger areas and more people. But recently the fire has got its fair share of attention.
Because it continues to push south, it is not a high risk fire for Inyo/ Mono Counties.
“Life and property is on the Sequoia side. They have firefighters on the Inyo side but Inyo has never been the priority.”
Schweizer heard all of the talk leading up to the forest closure and told The Sheet how it happened. “It came from the regional forester talking to forest supervisors asking the question, ‘Where is our risk?’”
Schweizer said the risk of so many one way forest roads, the fact that they had to evacuate over 200 people for the Creek fire, and the relative ferocity of the Creek Fire was enough to take ununprecedented action.
“I have been doing this for seven years and we have never done something like this,” said Schweizer. “I mean we closed down the forest during government shutdowns and there have been area closures. But never eighteen forests at the same time.”
“Coupled with the kind of fire we are seeing right now, we don’t need to add new risks. The fires are extremely flammable, volatile, and we don’t want to put our visitors at risk,” said Schweizer.
According to Schweizer, the support for the closure has been unexpected. In a time where most issues are polarized to the extreme, people seem to be okay with shutting the forest down.
“I am hearing overwhelming support for the decision to close the forest,” said Schweizer, “We can’t do anything about the lightning but we can do something about us. It says a lot about what we are experiencing out there that we closed down the forest.”
The smoke is something that is seriously affecting people all over the Eastside.
The winds have shifted Southwest causing smoke from the Creek fire to infiltrate Mammoth Lakes while Coleville and Walker are directly adjacent to another fire.
So the general question would be; What’s the health impact?
“There are three levels. If you can only see smoke it is probably okay, nut maybe not for at-risk groups. If you can smell the smoke, it is probably best to avoid prolonged exposure. If you can taste the smoke, then it is an unhealthy level,” advised Phill Kiddoo, the Air Pollution Control Officer for the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (GBUAPCD).
Obviously Kiddoo was using this as a general rule of thumb. Kiddoo told the Sheet that the length of exposure, type of exposure (heavy breathing or not), and the medical conditions of a person go into the calculation of how healthy/unhealthy the smoke is.
Kiddoo told the Sheet the best thing to do is go to Gbuapcd.org, and click on the current conditions under the ‘air monitoring data’ tab.
When the Sheet asked Kiddoo if people are safer inside, he essentially said maybe. “It depends on wind conditions, temperature, if the air is cool/warm. It is easier to regulate an indoor environment but as the wind changes in the day, it can oscillate.”
Kiddoo used the example of a static environment with heavy smoke outside. If the wind picks up and blows a majority of the smoke away, the outside will be healthier. And then the smoke could blow back and you are once again at square one
“Unless you have an air quality monitor in your house it is impossible to know,” said Kiddoo. Oh also, buy an air purifier.
Frank Frievalt gave the following fire update on Thursday.
The Creek Fire is the closest fire to Mammoth Lakes and is the source of the majority of the smoke impacts.
There is no current or projected evacuation order for the Town of Mammoth Lakes at this time.
Based on the information we have, the fire’s “edge” is about 19 miles from town. A previous social media post indicated that spotting occurred 15 miles from town; however, this was incorrect.
There is an evacuation order within Madera County that includes the Reds Meadow area, but it is a massive “zone” which includes the town of Oakhurst. I have been in touch with Sheriff Braun to see if we can get some better granularity on that.
We will see dense smoke from this fire as long as prevailing SW winds are present. If you have sensitivity to smoke, know that these conditions may persist for some time.
While the fire has a long way to travel here, and must cross some significant barriers, it has already displayed extreme fire behavior and we are giving it our full and complete attention.
If, over the next few days, conditions on the ground pass our decision points, early notification will be issued through Mono County Code Red Alert system, and also through a program that will send a text to your cell phone if it is connecting to a cell tower in the impacted area.
The Town of Mammoth Lakes public information officer will be providing relevant information, similar to the way winter storm, red flag, and other weather emergencies are communicated. Information will be updated frequently regarding the Creek Fire on the Town Website under the News Flash section on the homepage.