Photo of the LADWP-sparked fire in Long Valley from Matt McClain
Removing water from Long Valley puts the community of Crowley Lake at risk, and, in this age of large wildfires, potentially more of the Eastern Sierra, which is known for having intense winds that make wildfires especially dangerous. Strong winds produce a phenomenon known as ember cast, which carries embers from a wildfire up to 5 miles away, and can further “feed” a wildfire by providing it with extra oxygen, in essence, “fanning the flames.” Wind also dries out plant matter, increasing fuel availability. Add in the dewatering of the ranching leases of Long Valley to these natural risks, and the area is unnecessarily vulnerable, with the resulting dry plant materials left behind acting as “flash fuels,” which would ignite readily and be consumed rapidly.
“Wind and dry, flashy fuels are the biggest concern;” Stump explained, “We can't control wind- so we have to try to manage fuel types and fuel availability.”
Keeping this area irrigated helps prevent dry materials from burning, but Stump explained that irrigation in Long Valley is not only important in preventing the availability of fuel in these areas, but also in managing the fuel types which are available to burn. Some plants are better fuel for fire than others, particularly invasive plants which are not adapted for wildfire resilience. He noted, “Invasive plants are a big Great Basin concern. Brush types all produce oils as the environment gets drier, and these oils on their leaves make them much more flammable.”
According to Stump, invasives such as cheatgrass “grow earlier in the season, outcompete natives, and then are already dead in spring” when wildfire season rolls around, making it well timed wildfire fuel in comparison to native plants which stay green later in the season. Dry, light, and easy to ignite, invasives like Russian thistle (tumbleweed) can carry easily in the wind when aflame, alighting heavier fuels such as bushes and trees found in the hills above the Crowley community.
On top of their flammable nature, invasive plants, such as tumbleweed, are pioneering, meaning they are able to move in on previously disturbed land, areas in which habitat/ecosystems have experienced disturbances such as vegetation change, water runoff change, etc. Already these highly flammable plants have spread across the Great Basin, increasing fire danger and risking not only the integrity of the native environment, but the safety of local communities.
Stump added, “In order to provide cheaper water to their service customers, it seems [LADWP] is willing to risk the environment.” Pioneering invasives could easily establish themselves if these habitats lose the water they have come to rely on since the creation of the Long Valley Dam and the subsequent destruction of the wetlands behind it to create the Crowley Lake Reservoir. These invasives would crowd out the wetland vegetation that is there now, resulting in further habitat loss and increased fire danger.
Resources Stretched Thin
“The local fire department in Long Valley is volunteer. The area is small, rural, and has a general lack of resources which can be put towards protecting the community and environment from the threat of wildfire. Large fire resources must come from far away, and this is very dependent on what other fires are burning at that moment,” Stump explains.
As the fire season becomes longer and more intense, the availability of firefighting resources across the state, including in Long Valley, is stretched thin. In July 2021, only half of the U.S. Forest Service fire engines in California were fully staffed and able to run seven days a week. This year does not look much better, with the Forest Service warning of 50 percent fewer applications submitted for firefighting positions this year, something the service has testified they are trying to turn around.
Nationally and federally, there is a scramble to improve fire-fighting resources and working conditions, as seen with California’s Senate Bill 1062, The Fixing the Firefighter Shortage Act of 2022, which would require an increase in existing firefighter fuel crews and a standard minimum level of staffing without the regular practice of forced overtime. The Biden administration has vowed to boost federal firefighter pay and hiring in order to fight increasingly complex wildfires.
California cannot afford to create further wildfire stress, and LADWP, as a major land owner and stakeholder in the Eastern Sierra, must join the collective effort to increase our ability to withstand intense wildfire. While we plan to manage the next fire season, we must also plan to prevent these fires in the first place.
In addition to the physical threat of fire to human lives and livelihoods, wildfire in Long Valley poses a threat to air quality, with not only hazards from smoke but dust pollution resulting from the desiccation of the area. Already in the Eastern Sierra, high levels of PM10 and other fine particulate matter in the air threaten public health, as seen at Owen’s Lake and Mono Lake, where LADWP’s water extraction has long desiccated the landscape resulting in hazardous dust pollution.
According to the LA Times, LADWP has spent $2 billion dollars mitigating dust on Owen’s Lake. The state of California spent an all-time high of over $1.2 billion from the large fire emergency fund in fiscal year 2020-2021 alone. Fire and dust are costly enough without further threatening the environment and safety of the Eastern Sierra— investing in the future of Long Valley by continuing historical irrigation practices can help prevent further costly damage control.
Stump concluded, “LADWP needs to show hazard mitigation interest sooner rather than later. It’s a lot cheaper to maintain or prevent rather than restore.”
We can help reduce water needed to fight these fires by applying water strategically, as in places like Long Valley, where the water will not only help reduce fire danger, but support the greater environment and economy of the Eastern Sierra. A binding agreement to continue historical irrigation in Long Valley is an investment in the future of the Eastern Sierra and a state that is facing increasing danger from wildfire destruction. LADWP needs to change their practices in the Eastern Sierra and act now, rather than later, to save these lands. They can start by keeping Long Valley green.