Officials continue to make progress in attempts to control the Lion Fire in Sequoia National Park as skies begin to clear over the Eastern Sierra.
At more than 19,000 acres, the Lion Fire has raised concerns among Inyo County residents as smoke has flowed over the Sierra and into the valley, obscuring views of the scenic mountains.
Many residents have complained, via letters to the editor and phone calls and letters to the National Park Service and Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, that smoke in the Sierra negatively affects residents’ health due to the amount of particulates in the air and hurts the economy because tourists don’t want to spend their vacations engulfed in smoke.
The U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service held a meeting in Lone Pine on Monday to hear from Inyo County residents, and answer questions or address concerns they may have about the fire and smoke activity.
“The concerns residents brought up at the meeting (on Monday) were serious,” Interagency Public Information Officer Denise Alonzo said, pointing out that fire managers are working with residents and the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District to monitor weather patterns and ensure that any back burns or extreme fire activity is conducted on days when smoke will lift into the atmosphere rather than settle in the Owens Valley.
“This fire is a natural, lightning-started fire,” Elkowitz said. “The benefit is that it is a low-intensity fire due to the high snowpack. Right now we have ideal conditions, the fire is burning relatively cool and not blackening trees or producing as much smoke as it could in worse conditions. And it does a lot of good for the environment and it’s far more friendly for the communities in the long run in terms of smoke.”
Officials conceded that the smoke was much more intense in the Owens Valley last week when the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service had been igniting backfires to create fire lines in an effort to prevent the blaze from spreading further.
Great Basin Air Pollution Control Officer Ted Schade said particulate levels throughout the Eastern Sierra have returned to average levels over the past few days as the intensity of the fire has been reduced by rain and lack of fuel.
“Last week on Wednesday and Thursday they had lit large backfires to stop this thing in its tracks, and that’s when we had bad smoke days here,” Schade said. “And they did stop it. Right now our particulate levels are 10 times less than they were.”
“Over the past few days the fire hasn’t increased much in size,” said Interagency Public Information Officer Denise Alonzo. “We got some rain Saturday and Sunday, so that helped, and our fire lines seem to be holding.”
Alonzo said the spread of the fire slowed when it began to burn into areas of the National Forest that experienced fires about five years ago. She said those areas that were burned don’t have enough fuel on the ground to sustain the blaze.
Elkowitz said the main area of the Lion Fire has not burned for about 90 years. He said in the Sierra, the natural fire cycle is every 15-20 years.
Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District will hold a smoke impacts workshop at its next board meeting at 10 a.m. Monday, Sept. 19 in the Mammoth Lakes Town Council Chambers. Schade said anyone with concerns about smoke impacts in the Eastern Sierra is encouraged to attend.