While the Creek Fire continues to burn in the wilderness to the southeast of Mammoth Lakes, mitigation efforts and seasonal changes are turning the tide against it.
Conditions related to the Creek fire continued to improve throughout the week and Mono County has experienced an abundance of blue skies and sunshine for the first time since August.
Although smoke remains in the area and air quality still hasn’t fully returned to pre-fire levels, the clear skies were a welcome reprieve after nearly a month of being innundated by smoke and ash.
The National Weather Service in Reno reported last weekend that Mammoth Lakes had experienced the worst smoke conditions in the region for the majority of September.
As of Thursday, October 1, the fire was at 44% containment and had burned close to 310,000 acres of land. It remains the largest single wildfire in California history.
Although the fire has yet to burn into Mono or Inyo counties, it has progressed towards the northwest and further into the wilderness on the western side of the Sierra Nevada.
As some fires come under near-total contaiment, dangerous new fires ignited over the weekend as well.
The Zogg Fire in Shasta County, which began on September 27, has aleady burned 55,000 acres and caused four fatalities. In addition, the Glass Fire in Sonoma and Napa counties began the same day; it has burned 56,000 acres so far.
Smoke from both of those fires is expected to blanket much of Northern California and it’s likely that at least some of that will blow over the crest to the Eastside.
The third and final Mono County/Mammoth Lakes community briefing on the Creek Fire took place on the evening of Tuesday, September 29, this time with some new faces.
Great Basin Team 1 Deputy Commander Evans Kuo, who led the two prior community briefings, was cycled out after the last meeting on September 22. His replacements at the meeting on the incident were Incident Commander Rick
Connell and operation Section Chief Brett Pargman, both from the Northern Rockies Incident Management Team 4 based out of Montata.
The presentation that the two gave focused mainly on the fire’s progress along the south, west and northwest flanks of the fire.
Pargman reported that the majority of the containment work and personnel deployment is still concentrated along those fire flanks, adding that crews have been able to secure the perimeter in those areas.
Pargman reported much of the same that Kuo had in previous weeks about the branches of the fire closest to the Eastside. The Lions Fire scar continues to hold the fire back and the exposed granite peaks have further prevent any dangerous runs.
Pargman explained that the fire is “boxed in” to the northeast by the Lions scar and the natural rock formations, adding “we feel really confident that its not going to move out of that area. It’s going to continue to burn in those fuels. It’ll do that until we have a significant amount of change in the weather.
Connell stepped in to remind viewers that althought the Creek Fire is the nearest threat to the area, it’s by no means the only dangerous fire in California. He reitereated the fact that incident management teams continue to prioritize areas with high values at risk such as power lines, structures and towns, and livestock.
Connell also reported that the Zogg and Glass fires have received support from teams deployed to the Creek Fire.
Looking forward, Connell explained that smoke would probably be present in the area for awhile.
“While we may be turning the edge of the perimeter black with a control line,” Connell said, “the interior can still burn and were not able to actually put the entire fire out.
Part of the problem, he explained, is that winds can push fire and embers into small pockets of dense fuels. While it won’t create a massive spread in this manner, its enough to generate plenty of smoke. That smoke makes it difficult for pilots flying over to survey and report on the fire.
He also pointed out that smoke isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it has the ability to cap a fire and reduce its intensity, in turn hindering its ability to make runs at unburned fuels. Inyo National Forest Public Affairs Officer Deb Schweizer noted that smoke and fires are part of a healthy forest life cycle, adding that smoke helps reduce the impact of parasites like the bark beetle.
His final nugget of information: as far as his team is aware, the fire has not made a significant advance across the San Joaquin and into unburned trees closer to town.
In response to a viewer question about when the fire would be completely out, Connell explained that it’s tough to estimate given the amount unknowns related to weather. “It’s really challenging because we don’t know what your winter is going to look like,” he said. “From a temperature focus, we’re still in the summer.”
He introduced the possibility that the Creek Fire could burn through the winter and into next spring, adding “I wouldn’t be suprised … it’s not uncommon for fires of this size to have smokes come back in the following spring.”
As has been the case at previous meetings, Eastside residents were curious to know what steps, if any, are being taken to prevent the fire from spreading to the north and northeast (towards Mammoth Lakes).
The answer: none beyond the work in Devil’s Postpile. Pargman rehashed Kuo’s points from earlier meetings that the wilderness areas in question do not have a high number of values to protect and thus priorities continue to lie elsewhere.
As a follow up, another viewer asked why crews were deployed to the Lions Fire in 2018 and not now for the Creek Fire.
Per Gordon Martin, Inyo National Forest Mammoth District Ranger: resources were available at that time that aren’t available now due to more dangerous fires.
Acting Inyo National Forest Supervisor Pancho reported that while the Inyo will remain closed until October 8 (subject to change), forest staff is working to open access to some services on forest lands.
Smith noted that some locations, like Tom’s Place are still open to serve food and host guests, and added that forest staff is working to open similar businesses in the Lakes Basin.
Mono County Sheriff Ingrid Braun delivered arguably the best news of the night when asked about the likelihood of an evacuation warning.
“I can say that two weeks ago, I was sure that we should have our bags packed and ready to go,” she said, “but for this fire right now, I’m confident that we are not issuing an evacuation warning or order absent a mindblowing hurricane-force wind.”
“You’re okay, unpack your car for the weekend.”