Since June 6, Inyo National Forest firefighters and assisting agencies have been burning parts of the nearby forest. You might’ve spotted the plumes of smoke in the distance. Or, you might recall June 23 – the day the smoke hung thick and low by Benton and Crowley.
There are two areas being treated. “Casa Diablo,” to the east of Crowley Lake, and “Antelope,” to the east of Smokey Bear Flat and south of Owens River Road. Hundreds of acres of land are being burnt.
The Sheet spoke with Inyo National Forest’s Public Affairs Officer Lisa Cox to make sense of the smoke.
Before humans started suppressing forest fires in full force, natural burns caused by things like lightning strikes would help clean the forest floor, burning about 50 to 70% of the dry fuels underneath the trees.
“We call that a mosaic pattern,” explained Cox, “and when [the burn] creates that mosaic pattern, it creates these kinds of islands that have some burned fuels and some unburned fuels.”
Which, Cox added, helps open up the forest floor, reduces competition for light and water among larger, older trees, kills off dangerous diseases and insects, and improves the overall health and resilience of the forest.
Fires, then, are a sort of reset button. They roll through, burn what’s no longer needed, and free up space for established trees to better operate.
The Inyo National Forest firefighters, with these prescribed burns, are returning fire to the natural landscape. Both to help the forest, and to help the surrounding communities by creating what Cox called a “buffer zone” where firefighters can more directly engage with wildland firefighting tactics when there is a wildfire.
These Inyo National Forest burns are not related to the Eastern Sierra Climate and Communities Resilience Project (ESCCRP), which “sets forth [a] plan for ecological forest restoration on over 55,000 acres surrounding the Town of Mammoth Lakes,” per their one-pager. For more on the ESCCRP, check out our November 4, 2022 article, “Tree-son Afoot.”
The ESCCRP is still undergoing the NEPA process (which involves a federal environmental review of the project). The Casa Diablo and Antelope burns, however, “have been in the works for a long time,” said Cox. They’ve already cleared the NEPA process, for starters. “And, this is kind of like the last step in treating these particular plots of land,” said Cox. “They’ve already undergone mechanical treatments and pile burning.”
Mechanical treatments, essentially, stands for, “firefighters going in and removing trees.” Sometimes the Inyo National Forest does mechanical thinning and opens up the scraps to the public. Such was the case with the Inyo Craters project.
Other times, firefighters will go in and pile brush to be burned. “That’s what we’re hoping to do in the Lakes Basin at some point in the near future,” said Cox.
The Casa Diablo project’s been going on for about 20 years. The location was chosen by the Forest administration for its proximity to Sunny Slopes. “Casa Diablo is a great example of what it looks like when we’re continuously reintroducing fire the way nature intended… every year, we try to burn a different plot in that area, and they rotate between the different plots,” said Cox.
“Visually speaking, when I’m out there versus other areas of the forest, you see the kind of tree spacing that allows for a higher diversity of flora and fauna in general,” Cox added.
The Antelope project is also a continuation of a previously established project. But, after some recent fires got out of control in New Mexico, the Chief of the Forest Service put a nationwide pause on prescribed burning and rewrote the criteria that prescribed burns have to follow. “So, we went back, and we rewrote all of our burn plans to make sure that we’re hitting those criteria,” Cox said.
Antelope and Casa Diablo were successfully rewritten the soonest. “And,” Cox added, “their locations are important.” Protecting communities near Mammoth and Sunny Slopes.
Up next for the firefighters is Reds Meadows. Cox and the team are trying to put the finishing touches on a burn plan. “As you can imagine, it’s a highly complex area to try to burn in, so we’re not sure if we’re gonna get to it until the fall,” said Cox. Depends on the burn window they get, along with the state of the road construction.
There’s also about 2,000 acres near Casa Diablo (on the other side of the Owens River) on which they’ve set their sights
Burn preparation involves preparing containment lines. Roads, trails, or, sometimes, a line dug in the earth. Sometimes they’ll set up hoselays and mobile water reservoirs in case the fire gets out of hand.
But, if everything is done well and you have a really good burn window, explained Cox, the fire should contain itself. “The really unique thing about this year,” Cox said, “is we have very high fuel moistures.” There’s a bunch of water in the plants from the record snowfall.
“That has allowed them to move through this project, like, almost perfectly because the trees aren’t scorching because they’re so heavy with water,” Cox said. The mosaic pattern is perfect. “It actually kind of puts itself out.”