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High fire danger levels return to Owens Valley

April 1, 2013

CalFire Public Information Officer Bill Peters said the 250-acre blaze in Lone Pine on Feb. 24 (above) may be an indicator of the kind of fire season to be expected in the Owens Valley this spring and summer. With a below-average snowpack and little spring precipitation, officials are asking residents to be careful and fire-conscious while recreating. Photo by Trevor Warner

Spring has sprung and with warmer temperatures and longer days come some hazards for recreators.
Local officials are warning of avalanche danger in higher elevations caused by melting snowpack and of fire hazards in the Owens Valley caused by a drier-than-normal conditions.
Bishop Fire Chief Ray Seguine conducted a live fire training exercise just east of Bishop Saturday morning and said dry conditions on the valley floor are something residents should be aware and cautious of.
“Here in the valley, we always have conditions for a spark-off fire,” Seguine said. “It could be a light water year. Things are starting to green-up around town, but the valley usually has a little more precipitation by this time of year.”
Seguine went on to say that Sunday’s thunder showers may have helped to water grasses on the valley floor, but was not significant enough to soak larger fuels.
“That little bit of rain doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods,” Seguine said, explaining that during Saturday’s live fire training exercise, it took some effort to get a blaze started, but, as it got later in the day and the humidity dropped, “we had some pretty good burns out there.”
Seguine said residents should exercise caution when recreating around dry brush in the Owens Valley. “It’s the same as it’s always been: there is no camping or fires on the river and people should only have fires in developed camp sites,” Seguine said. “As the temperature starts to heat up, we’ll probably start putting up fire restrictions.”
CalFire Public Information Officer Bill Peters said that fire conditions in the Owens Valley don’t vary much from Lone Pine to Bishop. He explained that at lower elevations, and particularly around the river and in grazing pastures, light grasses that catch fire easily and spread rapidly are common. In the hilly regions of the valley, Peters said the brush is denser and retains more water, making it more difficult to catch fire, and slower to burn if it ignites.
“We always face this question (about spring and summer fire conditions) each year and we’re always ready to respond to a heavy fire season,” Peters said. “We could have dry temperatures and a benign fire season, but I think we’ve already seen the kind of fires we could have this year in the Owens Valley” with the 250-acre fire in Lone Pine in February and a four-acre, wind-driven fire north of Bishop in early March.
“We know the conditions are right to have a very, very active fire,” Peters said. “We have access to our fire resources statewide, and in 2-3 weeks, we’re looking at our first round of seasonal firefighter hires and bringing all of our engines online.”
Peters said CalFire officials in Sacramento monitor weather and precipitation conditions throughout the state and determine when to officially declare the beginning of fire season. In past years, the statewide fire season has been declared as early as March, and as late as June.
“We can prepare for everything, but we need the public to help as well,” Peters said. “When you’re doing your spring cleaning, think about defensible space (clearing dead and downed brush away from the home) and when you’re out, be careful, especially at the river.”
While officials prepare for warm weather in the Owens Valley, officials in Mono County are warning residents of hazards at higher elevations caused by melting snow.
“A below-average snowpack and unseasonably warm temperatures are rapidly changing the mix of recreation opportunities on the Mammoth and Mono Lake ranger districts,” a press release from the Inyo National Forest states. “Excellent skiing conditions remain above 8,500 feet, including skiing opportunities at Mammoth Mountain and Tamarack Cross Country Ski Areas. However, lower elevations and areas further from the Sierra Crest are seeing signs of an early spring. Recreation opportunities usually pursued in the summer months, such as, hiking, off-highway vehicle riding and mountain biking are quickly becoming available.”
The Forest Service provided the following safety and resource protection measures for high-altitude recreators this spring:
1. Groomed Snowmobile Trails are closed – The snowmobile trail network maintained by the Forest Service with support from California State Parks is no longer being groomed. Many trails are partially or completely melted out and signs and route markers have been removed. To protect forest resources and minimize erosion, the USFS asks that snowmobiles stay off of trails and forest areas that are not consistently snow-covered.
2. Stay on the Road – Many roads and trails this time of year have snow berms, drifts, downed trees, rocks and other obstacles that prevent travel by wheeled vehicles. Travel off road to bypass obstacles is prohibited. Users should either remove obstacles if safe to do so, or turn around upon encountering such obstacles, then report conditions to the Forest Service so that obstacles can be removed.
3. Dangerous Lake Ice – Many Sierra lakes did not experience a hard pre-snow freeze this winter. Much of the lake ice is “rotten” and – while appearing solid and frozen – may be a serious danger to anyone attempting to walk, ski, snowshoe or travel on. The Forest Service advises visitors to avoid traveling over snow-covered lakes.
“Barring a return of winter conditions, Forest Service personnel will be working to open campgrounds, day use recreation facilities, and roads and trails as quickly as conditions allow,” the press release states. “Many lakes will be free of ice by fishing opener and conditions are shaping up to be excellent.”
Both the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center and Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center are now open, and staff is available to answer any recreation questions.
For more information, contact the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center at (760) 924-5500, the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center at (760) 647-3044, or visit the Inyo National Forest website at www.fs.usda.gov/inyo.

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