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Where there’s smoke … there are complaints

March 4, 2011

Recent controlled burns conducted by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power raised public health concerns from at least one resident. The Great Basin Air Pollution Control District said, despite the smoky conditions, air quality in the Owens Valley was not greatly diminished. Photo by Liz O’Sullivan

Recent controlled burns in the Owens Valley have sparked concern in at least one local resident who fears using fire for forest management will negatively impact residents and businesses.
When local resident Liz O’Sullivan saw smoke lingering in the air earlier this week due to a series of controlled burns conducted by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, she filed a formal complaint in hopes of getting the crews to stop burning until the smoke had dissipated.
Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control Officer Ted Schade, who received the complaint, said that air particulate levels in the Owens Valley were “not even close” to the state maximum.
Schade said the state standard for air quality is an average 50 micrograms of particulates over 24 hours and this week’s records show that, at no point during the burning did particulate levels exceed 30 micro grams in an hour.
O’Sullivan said that the smoke from LADWP’s burns impacted “smoke sensitive communities” such as Independence and, if left unchecked, could impact the local economy by obstructing viewsheds.
O’Sullivan said she fears that if the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District does not do something to curb controlled burns in the Owens Valley, the prescribed fires will begin to take a toll on tourism and the health of local residents.
But Schade said Great Basin had no grounds to stop or limit burning this week.
“We have standards that we have to enforce to. It’s like the CHP, they have a speed limit they have to enforce, but they can’t stop people for traveling under the speed limit,” Schade said.
O’Sullivan said she is concerned about other potential burn projects.
California passed the Collaborative Forest Landscape Plan in 2009 that outlines a number of forest management activities, including prescribed burns.
O’Sullivan said the collaborative plan affects most major land-holders in the Eastern Sierra, including the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, and “if they all start burning at the same time, we’re going to start looking like the San Joaquin Valley.”
O’Sullivan is encouraging residents to comment on a series of burn plans, including Casa Diabolo and Dinky Basin, “so maybe we’ll have some leverage to get Great Basin to implement policies to make our air cleaner.”
Schade said part of the function of Great Basin is to coordinate burn plans in the area to prevent multiple agencies from burning in the same area on the same day. “That’s why we’re here, to coordinate all that stuff. The state determines burn days and the agencies call and coordinate their burn schedules with us,” he said.
For example, if the U.S. Forest Service has a scheduled burn between Lone Pine and Independence, and the LADWP requests permission to burn between Big Pine and Bishop the same day, Schade said Great Basin would reschedule LADWP’s project to ensure that the two fires do not adversely impact local communities.
Schade did say that, given appropriate wind and air conditions, Great Basin would likely permit two burn projects in a day if, for example, one was located in the Lee Vining area and the other was located in Southern Inyo.
“What we can’t control are burns on the other side of the Sierra, like the Sheep Fire that the Forest Service decided to let burn and burn,” Schade said.
The Sheep Fire was ignited by lightning on July 16 last year, and was allowed to burn through October, when rain and snow finally got the upper hand. The Forest Service often allows naturally occurring fires that don’t threaten structures to run their natural course to burn dead and downed debris.
Those who would like to review and comment on the Dinky Basin burn plan may do so at
To view and comment on the Sierra National Forest’s, “Schedule of Proposed Actions” visit /

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