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Lightning starts fires on West Side

July 25, 2013

Smoke from the Aspen Fire on the west side of the Sierra has made its way over the mountains, creating hazy skies in Inyo and Mono counties (above). Air quality in Inyo County has remained safe, but officials say that Mammoth Lakes has seen more severe impacts with pollutants exceeding the state standard. Photo by Dion Agee

A lightning-sparked wildfire is burning uncontained on the west side of the Sierra this week and causing hazy skies on the east side.
The Aspen Fire, officials said, has grown to 3,000 acres since Sunday and, as of Wednesday afternoon, was 0 percent contained.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, the Sierra National Forest – where the fire is burning – has “received significant lightning activity” since Sunday. “These downstrikes have resulted in 15 new wildfires, the largest of which … is Aspen Fire located below Stump Springs Road just north of Aspen Creek.”
At one point late Tuesday afternoon, all crews were pulled off the fire line for safety reasons.
Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control Officer Ted Schade said Wednesday that hazy skies in Inyo and Mono counties can be attributed to the fast-growing blaze.
Schade said the Bishop area – 50 miles from the fire – has seen some visual impacts due to blowing smoke from the fire, but pollutant particulates have not exceeded the state standard of 50 micrograms.
However, Schade said, Mammoth Lakes has received the brunt of the smoke, hovering at the state standard much of Tuesday night.
“Mammoth spiked at 200 micrograms,” Schade said. “We are talking to the local air pollution control district (the San Joaquin APCD). We’re keeping them informed and coordinating with them.”
Schade explained that the San Joaquin APCD will coordinate with the Sierra National Forest, which is the responsible agency on the fire. Because the blaze has been determined to be a naturally occurring fire (started by lightning), the Sierra National Forest may choose to allow it to take its natural course, as long as it does not threaten life or property.
If local impacts worsen, Schade said, it is likely that Forest officials will begin efforts to extinguish the fire.
“The land managers work with us a lot more closely than they used to, but ultimately the decision is up to them.”
As of Wednesday, Sierra National Forest officials had ordered the Central Sierra Type 2 Incident Management Team to oversee the blaze.
Of the additional lightning fires, three are in wilderness areas and two have not been located by fire personnel. “All fires are less than a quarter-acre,” a press release from the Sierra National Forest states. “Four fires are already fully contained but will continue to be monitored.”
There are currently four 20-person fire crews assigned to the fires with two additional crews on order. Three air tankers and four helicopters are also involved in suppression efforts. U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers have been deployed on some of the more remote fires.
In Sequoia and Kings National Parks, meanwhile, there are six new fires burning as a result of Sunday and Monday’s lightning activity.
“Due to their relatively remote wilderness locations, these fires do not currently pose a threat to life or property,” a Park Service press release states. “None of the fires is currently greater than one-quarter acre in size.”
Even so, the press release states, the parks will be extinguishing the fires.
“While lightning fires are sometimes allowed to burn in wilderness to promote forest health, most of these fires are being suppressed due to the severe drought conditions and very high fire danger.”
For more fire information, visit http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/3552.

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