“The coverage at the top is as good as I have seen it in 30 years,” said Shepler, stoked after skiing Hangman’s Hollow in June for the first time in years before trading his waterproof pants for a pair of shorts and flip-flops. “We live for these summers up here.”
But the bounty of California’s have-it-both-ways climate has evolved into a can’t-win challenge, something former governor Jerry Brown called the “new abnormal.”
Awash in precious snow and water that will help meet the demands of the state’s 40 million residents, the wetness also is forcing California to confront an even greater threat of wildfire. The soaking spring nourishing the Jeffrey pines and sagebrush is giving way to a desert dry as soaring heat scorches the new growth into blankets of kindling.
At least eight wildfires have flared this month to the north and west of here, and the Bay Area hit record-high temperatures for early June. The utility company responsible for the state’s deadliest fire, which reduced the town of Paradise to ash last year, has begun preemptively shutting down power to tens of thousands of customers in fire-prone areas.
The shift to climate extremes also highlights years of inadequate forest management that has turned places such as the Inyo National Forest, which surrounds this mountain resort, into overgrown stands of fuel. Forest managers here are setting “controlled” fires months earlier than usual, and they have adopted plans that will allow vast stretches of state forest to burn if wildfires begin naturally.
“We’ve gotten really good at putting out fires under all circumstances, except for extreme weather conditions,” said Alan Taylor, a Pennsylvania State University professor of geology and ecology who has found that the historical link between wet winters followed by mild fire seasons no longer exists. “And that is how they are burning in California now.”
Since taking office, President Trump has blamed irresponsible forest management for California’s severe wildfires, which have followed wet springs. He has failed to mention that more than half the forest land in the state is under federal control.
But Trump’s push for more aggressive fuel-clearing measures — including controlled burns often opposed by the public and in conflict with state air quality regulations — is a rare point of agreement between those who manage the forests and his administration.
The U.S. Forest Service has been ordered to increase by threefold the amount of fire fuel it clears each year through controlled burns and “thinning,” the more selective cutting down of trees. The agency also has been told to step up timber production, a policy that has traditionally bothered environmentalists.
California, too, has strengthened its approach.
Brown (D) allocated $1 billion from the state’s carbon-tax revenue to the lead fire agency, CalFire, for the purpose of managing forests to prevent fires rather than simply fighting them. His successor, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), has continued that approach.
“Sometimes California feels like this entirely different country than the United States, and people love to disparage the state, sometimes for good reason,” said Malcolm North, a forest service scientist who runs a lab at the University of California at Davis. “But this is an issue in the West that we are not going to fix without a financial commitment, and California is making that financial commitment.”
The long-term goal is to return California forests to their conditions before 1850, when decades of European settlement culminated with the rapid population increase that accompanied the Gold Rush. What that means: Forests with far fewer trees.
The success of modern, aggressive fire suppression techniques has meant that forests, which once burned naturally, have for decades been prevented from doing so, leaving dangerous consequences.
About 10 percent, or 500,000 acres, of Sierra forest now under federal management burned each year before 1850. Forest scientists say that is roughly the natural fuel quota that should be eliminated annually.
But, in those same forests today, managers are clearing just 33,000 acres of fuel each year. The result is that forests dry out faster because, as North puts it, “there are too many straws in the ground.” The fires burn hotter and longer.
“We’re not even close, we’re off by an order of magnitude, and you cannot just thin your way out of the problem,” he said of meeting adequate fuel-clearing quotas. “We’re behind the eight ball on this, and we should use every tool we have.”
A century without fire
The Inyo National Forest’s 1.9 million acres include the Sierra’s pine forests, steep canyons, expansive calderas and the highest peak in the Lower 48 states, Mount Whitney. There is no timber industry here in what is a rain shadow formed by the surrounding range.
“We are basically a forest on top of a desert,” said Eric Vane, the U.S. Forest Service’s vegetation planning manager for the northern Inyo.
Vane is 32 years old, a Michigan native, who has worked here for three years. Before that, he was in Stanislaus National Forest to the north where, unlike in the Inyo, a commercial timber industry thrived.
Inyo’s challenges are different — from its climate to its trees to its closer contact with a public that doesn’t always weigh the long-term goals of forest management against short-term challenges and inconveniences of controlled burns.
Outside Vane’s U.S. Forest Service office, a carved wooden Smokey Bear displayed a green sign one recent morning declaring fire danger “low.”
There are patches of snow on the ground at 7,800 feet, the peaks above coated in white. But the clear air is dry and the sun hot when the windblown clouds reveal it.
“It changes so fast right now,” Vane said. “This combination of dryness and heat just sucks the moisture out of the plants. We’ll go from Smokey saying ‘low’ to ‘extreme’ very quickly.”
The Inyo is made up primarily of Jeffrey pine, a tree that has adapted to fire. Its bark is thick and reddish, and on those that existed before the Gold Rush, its horizontal branches begin far up the trunk. The trees shed their lower branches to prevent flames from climbing into their crowns.
Some stands here are a tangle of old and young pines, pale sage and bitter brush covering the small patches of ground between them. This is unnatural, the bunching too close together to allow for healthy growth or the right allocation of water for all these straws.
“You read accounts from the mid-1800s, and people were taking horse and buggy through here,” Vane said, pointing at a stand so dense a hiker would have a hard time passing.
But, as the dirt road climbs and dips through the forest, signs of the last fire appear. Charred trunks, cut down by the forest service after the blaze, lie in haphazard piles.
In 2016, the Owens River Fire charred nearly 5,500 acres, about 700 of which burned here along the steep roadside. This was a “high-intensity” event because the flames reached into the tree canopy, spreading quickly through high branches rather than across the ground.
Over the next rise, a patch of blackened forest fills the valley before climbing along the canyon’s far wall toward the top of Bald Mountain. The trees here are black spikes, branchless.
“This was an area that had not seen fire in a hundred years, so all these dense patches were primed to burn at high severity,” Vane said. “The way this burned was an abnormality compared to how it would have a century ago.”
The severity of the state’s recent fire seasons, which have been longer and more intense than any in memory, prompted officials to update forest-management plans. The one for Inyo had not been revised since 1988.
At the state level, all 175 fire districts have done the same. Among the most significant measures adopted in some of the revised plans is the designation of large tracks of forest as “let it burn” zones. In the three districts in the Sierras, the designation encompasses between 150,000 and 300,000 acres of forest that would be allowed to burn if a wildfire were to begin.
Cinematic storm clouds blow in quickly, casting the approach to the Bald Mountain summit in shadow. A light snow dusts the roadside, heated only minutes before by a summer sun. Then hail begins to pelt the windshield. Nearing the summit, it turns to balls of ice and snow that pound down and make the summit unreachable.
Minutes later, and a thousand feet lower, the sun is out.
“I’ve never seen it like that before,” Vane said. “I guess we decided to show you all the weather we have on one day.”
Lighting the forest on fire
The readings are promising — light wind, blowing away from town, and humidity above 50 percent. Conditions auspicious enough to start a fire and, with much planning and dozens of well-trained men and women, control it.
On this June day, the forest service is going to burn 120 acres of the Inyo National Forest, an operation that would commonly wait until fall. But fire season seems to start — if it ends at all — earlier each year here.
“We want to keep this fire on the ground — scorch height, but no higher,” Jason Wingard, the burn boss, told his crew in the preignition briefing.
“What are we stressing most here?” asked Bren Townsend, a “holding team” leader assigned to keep the fire within its parameters.
“The wind,” Wingard answered.
The planning for a burn even of this modest size is painstaking and politically fraught. One mistake, one wind shift, could turn a tool for wildfire prevention into a wildfire itself.
As a result, these burns are tiny bites of a very large apple. California air quality rules limit prescribed burns to 200 acres a day, and even after extending the window for these operations, the goal for the year here is about 3,000 acres.
The crew breaks into groups — holding, ignition, water. Those who will be starting the fire with drip torches, each containing a mix of diesel and gasoline, huddle around the team leader, who is sketching the contours of the slope in front of them in the dirt.
The strategy is to bring the fire down the hill, against the wind, and into the flats. The sage and bitter brush is the primary target, not the larger trees that, at least here, are spaced far enough apart to indicate a healthy forest.
Soon, a half dozen men and women are crisscrossing the hill, setting fires. The lines are organized, close together, and the boundaries defined by “black lines” that prevent flames from jumping “out of the box.”
The work is slow. Stumps take special care, as do piles of bone-dry trees cut down in previous thinning operations. The smell of man-made fuel — hauled up hills in 50-pound jerrycans — is strong. So is the flat heat from nearby, chest-high walls of flame.
The burn will take all day. But the weather holds, and after several hours, Wingard is pleased with the fire’s course.
“It’s going about as well as it could be going,” he said.
A summer delight
Tusks is the indoor-outdoor bar at the foot of Mammoth Mountain, a deck of picnic tables and a fire pit unlit on a recent summer afternoon.
It is the perfect vantage to watch the skiers and snowboarders delight in a June bonanza, launching from end-of-run jumps, skidding wildly into lift lines, and pounding upstairs for a beer after a few hours of traversing the cornice.
To Liam Corrigan, the snow is simply a boon. He jumped in his car in Orange, Calif., one recent morning and drove hundreds of miles north, reaching the slopes here before noon.
“The farther you go up the mountain, the better it is,” said Corrigan, 23, who works at the REI in his Orange County town.
Light snow, then a thin rain begins to fall. Three shirtless guys reach the bottom of the slope with a noisy stop, a pair of resting kids drinking hot chocolate giggling at the spectacle.
“I’m from the East Coast, and I’m skiing in June,” Corrigan said. “Believe me, I have nothing to complain about.”