Smoke in the Mountains

A thick wave of smoke rolls in as the sun sets over Convict Lake in Mammoth Lakes, California.

As the interpretive interns and rangers await the arrival of shuttle busses that transport visitors into our valley every half hour, they anticipate answering a standard array of questions ranging from “How far is the hike to see Rainbow Falls?” to the classic “Which way to the bathroom?” An observant few visitors notice and inquire about the peculiar equipment arranged around the flagpole near our ranger station. I am always eager to answer because of how interesting and enlightening research on this subject has been to me.

Air quality monitoring equipment is set up surrounding the flag pole. Nearby, visitors await the shuttle bus in front of the ranger station.

Devils Postpile National Monument is a very climate conscious park and has, for numerous years, been taking steps to increase visitor awareness and decrease our impact on the planet. The mandatory shuttle bus system was introduced over thirty years ago to lighten the load of emissions and traffic congestion within our valley. Additionally, the equipment near the flagpole, and similar gear set up in the Soda Springs Meadow, have been erected as the Pacific Southwest Research Station for the US Forest Service, the University of California: Merced, Saint Mary’s College, the Desert Research Institute, and the National Park Service in order to actively and passively track and compare the presence of particulate matter (PM 2.5), ozone, and other pollutants within our air. The goal of this partnership is to determine whether air pollution found around our monument is locally produced or comes from the west.

Granite Dome overlooks additional air quality monitoring equipment that has been set up in Soda Springs Meadow.

The constant flow of data regarding the quality of the air has highlighted numerous intriguing idiosyncrasies at work in the San Joaquin River Valley. One of the results that I find most fascinating reveals that prevailing winds from the southwest propel pollution from the Central Valley into the eastern Sierra. Due to the ongoing research, this pollution has been observed nestling itself into our valley. For a place as climate conscious as Devils Postpile, it is quite surprising that pollution migrating from other cities is an issue. All of the air quality research would be absolutely captivating on its own, of course, but a recent wildfire that began burning south of our monument has made the project even more beneficial. The Aspen Fire originated from a lightning strike near Huntington Lake, California on July 22. The fire began as a consistent grower, expanding about two thousand acres each day. Because it burns within a dense wilderness area among treacherous terrain, firefighters were prevented from directly containing this natural fire as a precaution for their own safety. Suppression slowly increased as the crews began working to burn off areas outlying the perimeter to get rid of any potential fuel for the fire. Two weeks later, it has grown to 22,546 acres, and is almost completely contained.

Smoke obscures a view of the Minarets from the San Joaquin River Valley.

Luckily for those of us living in and around Mammoth Lakes, the fire has remained about 17 miles or more south of town. However, in some ways we are supremely unlucky because the geography of the Sierra works to our disadvantage in this situation. The valley in which Mammoth Lakes and the Devils Postpile sit has been acting as a funnel for all of the dense smoke from the fire and the prevailing winds have vacuumed all of that smoke in our direction. Driving to work each day, my fellow interns and I would always wonder if we would be able to see the beautiful range of Minarets that typically welcomes us into the valley in the mornings. Working (or in the rangers’ cases — living) at the Postpile day after day throughout the duration of the fire has been a bit arduous, causing some people headaches, dry throats and eyes, as well as chronic coughing and lethargy.

A graph of the varying particulate matter levels depicts the bleak quality of air visitors and personnel inhaled throughout the worst of the Aspen Fire.

The silver lining during this influx of smoke is the air quality data that has been monitored especially carefully. Since the beginning of the fire, we have observed just how much particulate matter (PM2.5) is being carried into our lungs by the smoke. Initially, the readings deemed the levels of particulate matter “unhealthy”—not quite as bad as “extreme,” but certainly worse than “good.” After the first few days of consistent readings in the range of “unhealthy” and “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” the levels have receded and we are now breathing “good” and sometimes “moderate” air once again.

An eerie smoke cloud alters the sunset over US 395 south as I drove out of town to escape the smoke.

Because the particulate matter data is updated hourly, we have been publicizing daily “air quality reports” for visitors and have been sharing the information to visitors exiting the busses and those calling about camping and visitation. The typical questions from visitors about the equipment have been replaced with queries about how long the smoke will remain, as well as some comments about the lack of containment for the fire. All we can do at this point is spread awareness and tell people to drink as much water as possible, but the data has truly helped convey the severity of the situation.

Mountains of the Ritter Range are shrouded in smoke during the influx of smoke from the south.

Much of the smoke has cleared up by this point. The rangers and interns are pleased to breathe relatively clean air, to see the mountains surrounding the monument, and the blue sky above us again. If nothing else beneficial came from the fire, at least we can all truly appreciate the incredible wilderness surrounding us and be grateful that we can breathe easy once more.

Here I am sniffing a sweet Jeffrey Pine in front of a smoky Convict Lake.