Smoke from the Creek Fire continued to inundate the Eastern Sierra all week, creating yellow skies and hazardous air conditions for everyone, not just those with pre-existing conditions.
The air quality has, quite literally, been off the charts. At 9 a.m. Thursday morning, the Air Quality Index in Mammoth Lakes was 1525 for PM10 and 742 for PM2.5. The AQI index measures 0-500, any number higher than that is considered “beyond the AQI.” Bishop’s conditions were measured to be the same as Mammoth Lakes while Bridgeport and the Mono Lake area were only slightly below 500 on the AQI.
The smoke from the California wildfires has been reportedly felt as far away as the Netherlands and Hamburg, Germany.
The Creek Fire, which began over Labor Day weekend, has burned more than 240,000 acres of land, mostly in the Sierra National Forest between Madera and Fresno counties. Officials stated that 11,000 people on the west side of the Sierra have been evacuated. 806 structures have been burned so far with an estimated 9,500 currently threatened.
It is currently the 10th largest wildfire in California history.
While the Eastern Sierra hasn’t seen any evacuations yet, the massive wildfire burning about 13-15 miles from Mammoth Lakes has understandably generated a lot of anxiety. Both the Mono County Board of Supervisors and Mammoth Lakes Town Council took time to receive updates on the blaze this week. The supervisors approved a motion to close Lundy Campground to visitors, with reopening predicated upon the actions of the Inyo National Forest.
One person called into the board with queries about upcoming reservations at Crystal Crag Lodge, noting “ I don’t know if I’m going to be a burden on the community” if they were to visit. The supervisors noted that it wasn’t their place to give advice on the matter and urged the person to evaluate the conditions before making a final decision.
The Inyo National Forest remains closed to all visitors at this time, with no open flames permitted anywhere within the Forest or in surrounding communities. That closure has been extended through September 21st although it is expected to be extended even further.
Recent progress made on the Slink Fire, burning in northern Mono and Alpine counties, allowed the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest to reopen earlier this week for all recreational activities. Campfires remain banned in both dispersed and developed campgrounds.
Yosemite National Park closed its gates to visitors on Thursday afternoon due to the smoke. There are currently no fires within the park.
The general concern regarding the Creek Fire was enough to warrant a community meeting on Tuesday night featuring presenters from the National Forests, Creek Fire Management Team, and the Town of Mammoth Lakes.
Evans Kuo, part of the Creek Fire Management Team, explained that the primary goal so far has been securing the mountain communities to the west and south of the fire. The fire is 18% contained, most of which is in the area of those towns.
Kuo reported that the fire was pushing up the south side of the San Joaquin River as it moved to the northeast with additional activity in the vicinity of Mount Tom. In that area of the fire, Kuo noted, it has begun to hit exposed rock and “we’re starting to see some signs of it slowing down.”
The real period of concern, according to Kuo, is the end of this week and the beginning of the next. Winds are expected to pick up (Mono County has a red flag warning for Thursday and Friday) which could push the fire closer to Mammoth Lakes.
There is natural mitigation potential that could help slow the fire’s advance; much of the area between the fire and Mammoth Lakes is granite outcroppings above the tree line and the timber isn’t as densely packed as it is at lower elevations. In addition, the fire scar from the Lion Fire in 2018 has the potential to further slow the burn as much of the fuel in that area has already been burned.
Kuo also explained that the fire management team, along with local stakeholders, has devised a series of trigger points for the fire that, when reached, would necessitate certain actions.
The fire has already burned through the first of points that involve actions for Mono County, resulting in coordination with the Inyo National Forest, Devil’s Postpile, and County officials.
The next point, which the fire has not yet reached as of Thursday, is in the vicinity of Pincushion Peak. If that trigger point is hit, officials will be paying close to attention to the severity of the fire burning through the rocky terrain.
Local activity will ramp up if the fire reaches Fish Creek, east of Pumice Butte and south of Duck Lake. At that time, local authorities would begin discussing the need for an evacuation in Mammoth Lakes and a Code Red alert will go out to Mono County residents.
“A lot of this is contingency planning,” Kuo said, “We want to give a sense of actions we would take if the fire comes under the influence of wind.”
Kuo explained that the winds would hopefully begin to die down by Friday afternoon.
As Mammoth Lakes Fire Chief Frank Frievalt said, “We are not an evacuation spot. Just because we’re mentioning it doesn’t mean we’re there … that said, we’re also in historic times, we do have some strong winds coming up.”
The presentation concluded with a question and answer session. The key questions, and answers, are summarized below.
Q: Why haven’t there been airborne flame retardant drops in the area.
A: It’s too smoky to safely take off and land
Q: Why aren’t there more resources distributed to the northern parts of the fire?
A: It’s a very remote region and as a result, there are very few priorities to protect.
Q: What is the evacuation route?
A: Route 203, 4 lanes one way
Q: What are the odds of an evacuation at this point?
A: Hard to say, there’s a lot of factors that can’t be predicted and things can change very quickly. Kuo noted that the winds increase probability but the natural barriers only drive that probability down again.
On a call with The Sheet on Thursday, Frievalt explained that the fire is still 15 miles away. Despite a red flag warning through Saturday, Frievalt stressed that there was no need to panic unless things changed drastically.
Mono County has created a Creek Fire website that features information about the wildfire. Visit https://creek-fire-preparedness-monomammoth.hub.arcgis.com.
Regular updates on the fire can also be found on the Mammoth Lakes Fire Department Facebook page as well as the Inyo National Forest Facebook page and the CalFire website.
Another community meeting on the Creek Fire is schedule for Tuesday, September 22 at 7 p.m. The meeting can be accessed through Mono County’s Creek Fire website, going to https://monocounty.zoom.us/j/96975390897, or calling 16699006833 and entering Webinar ID: 969 7539 0897.