Mono County Supervisors received a fire season forecast at their regular meeting Tuesday from officials representing multiple federal agencies.
The upshot: Inyo National Forest Supervisor Lesley Yen warned that a forest shutdown at some point this summer is a distinct possibility.
While she said this is a “last resort” option, forest closure is now a permanent tool in the toolbox.
As Yen explained, the Forest Service has to treat fire response globally. In other words, what’s happening throughout the west could impact local policy. If firefighting crews need to be dispatched to other locales, our local forest may be shut down to minimize risk.
Yen spoke to Supervisors from New Mexico, where she has been stationed of late to aid in wildfire response. She said recent fires “have been outpacing all of the models we have” and used terms like unprecedented, scary and heartbreaking.
“New Mexico doesn’t make me very hopeful about this year’s fire season,” she observed.
A big issue for the federal agencies is staffing. Lance Rosen, Assistant District Fire Management Officer out of the BLM’s (Bureau of Land Management) Bishop office said “It’s going to be a long, busy, smoky summer for us all … and we’re not really staffed for it.” He said firefighting staffing levels are at 70-75% statewide, and that 2 of the 9 local engines won’t operate this year because there’s no one to run them.
“We’ve gone from a huge applicant pool 10-20 years ago to not having enough,” he said. He ascribed it to inadequate pay, the high cost-of-living and generational change – the amount of work young people are willing to do, and the amount of interest younger generations have in outdoor occupations.
Interagency Fire Management Officer Larry Pingel said state snowpack levels are currently 38% of average. He also reported absurdly low fuels moisture content – meaning vegetation is bone dry. By July, he said, all elevations will be at above normal risk for significant fire potential.
Yen said a ban on campfires is likely to occur sooner rather than later.
Supervisor Stacy Corless said she believes local residents are firmly in support of early fire restrictions.
Multiple officials agreed that we are about a month ahead of the typical fire season schedule.