After a week of warnings about incoming strong winds, Mono County awoke on Friday, Sept. 18 to a light but steady rain. For the first time in days or even weeks, the air smelled of something other than smoke.
Antelope Valley was clear of smoke and the mountains across Big Meadow from Bridgeport were visible in their entirety.
Meanwhile, 395 from Lee Vining past Mammoth Lakes was like driving at night; not everyone was lucky enough to have clear skies. The smoke was gone on Saturday but rolled back in as the day went on.
Despite the continued presence of strong winds throughout last weekend, the Creek Fire, burning on the opposite side of the Sierra Crest made no significant progress towards Mammoth Lakes or any other locales in the Eastern Sierra. In the meantime, the blaze has become the largest single fire in California history, burning nearly 300,000 acres of land and destroying 855 structures as of Thursday afternoon, Sept. 24.
3,075 personnel have been deployed to manage and battle the fire, mostly on the western and southern areas of the blaze where some towns have already been evacuated and others are threatened. The fire remains about 14 miles outside of Mammoth Lakes.
Mono County hosted a community meeting on Tuesday evening, similar to the one conducted a week earlier.
Evans Kuo, Deputy Incident Commander with Great Basin Team 1, reported that the team’s previous theories, that exposed granite and the 2018 Lions fire scar would slow the spread of the Creek fire, were correct.
Kuo displayed infrared imaging of the fire, updated every evening, and highlighted places where natural barriers had been successful, so far, in holding back the fire.
He also reported that while the wind event over the previous weekend had pushed the fire to the north as expected, “it did not move into places that we were concerned about or trigger points that we had preplanned from.” He added that the fire is showing significant signs of slowing down in areas where its progress has been impeded.
Kuo highlighted two key areas that officials are closely monitoring: the San Joaquin River and the Lions fire scar. Imaging on the map showed the fire tracing the line of the San Joaquin almost perfectly along the south bank, with no evidence that it had been able to cross the river and continue growing.
If the fire does eventually cross that line, it would burn into areas with heavy fuels and no other significant natural barriers in the vicinity. It would reach one of the agreed-upon trigger points at Pincushion Peak. At that time firefighting resources would be consolidated on the Eastside and the fire incident teams would begin to work closely with the Inyo National Forest and Mammoth Lakes Fire Department.
The other area of significance is the 2018 Lions fire scar, which Kuo likened to exposed granite in its effectiveness as a fire barrier. He explained that while there have been some hotspots within the fire scar, there hadn’t been enough fuel to create a significant blaze. Overall, he said, there’s a low
likelihood of the fire burning through the scar, over the granite, and heading towards town.
Another trigger point, more drastic than Pincushion, would come if the fire were to reach Fish Creek to the south of Mammoth Lakes. Fire incident teams would begin to coordinate with local authorities and prepare for a potential evacuation order.
“I’m happy that we have not needed to trigger those needs,” Kuo said, and referenced the combination of natural barriers, moisture, and general fire behavior that have limited additional spread. He explained that as days get shorter, burn times are gradually reduced as it takes longer for saturated fuels to ignite.
“The likelihood of this fire moving to the north is less and less each day,” he said.
After Kuo concluded his presentation, a group of panelists, comprised of representatives from the National Forests and local officials, answered questions from the public.
In response to a question about air quality and smoke in Mammoth Lakes over the next few days, Kuo reported that a high pressure dome over the Great Basin would create stable air conditions. While that would reduce potential fire spread, Kuo explained that smoke would remain stuck in valley basins with no wind to move it anywhere.
Concerns about smoke were common among those asking questions and attendees seemed frustrated that little had been done to contain the north side of the fire. According to Kuo, not much can be done about the smoke blowing into Mono County right now due to limited firefighting resources and the remote nature of the fire.
“The teams managing this incident are world class in what they do,” Mammoth Lakes Fire Chief Frank Frievalt added, “I support the priority [to the south and west]…It’s way more risk to young men and women putting them down in a high-risk, low-reward area.”
Estimates for when the fire would be out, Kuo explained, depend on the weather. The CalFire website estimates that the fire will be contained by mid-October although Kuo guessed that weather may put the fire out closer to Halloween.
At the time of the meeting, Acting Inyo National Forest Supervisor Pancho Smith reported that the Inyo would open on Friday, September 25; the following morning, a press release was issued reporting that the Inyo would be closed until Oct 1.
On fire preparedness and potential evacuation: Frievalt explained that leaving lights on while evacuating can help firefighters find houses, but emphasized that evacuating quickly was a higher priority. In response to a question about locking doors, Mono County Sheriff Ingrid Braun said that its better to lock up but added, “If we need to get in, we’ll find a way to get in.”
A CalFire press release posted to the Mammoth Lakes Fire Department Facebook on Thursday morning explained that helicopters based at the Mariposa Heli Base would be relocated to Mammoth Lakes starting on Friday, September 25. Of note: “This relocation is in response to the expected northeast winds associated with the high-pressure system moving into the area this weekend, and NOT THE RESULT OF AN INCREASED THREAT TO THE TOWN OF MAMMOTH LAKES.”