The Snows of Mt. Tom: Dire Warnings from the Sierra Nevada

Jill: Mom, there’s snow on Mt. Tom!
Mom: It’ll still be there on the weekend.
Jill: Don’t make me go to school today. It’s the first day of snow. There’s snow on Mt. Tom!

– The Other Side of the Mountain, Universal Pictures, 1975

The snow has not yet come to Mt. Tom.

It is one more thing in the year 2020, our annus horriblis.

And as the days march into November, the residents of Bishop, CA, where I was raised, look with an increasing sense of dread toward the great pyramidic peak that dominates the nearly 14,000-foot Eastern Sierra escarpment that towers above the northern reach of Owens Valley.

The first dusting of snow atop Mt. Tom has long been a time of celebration. It was certainly a thrill for Bishop’s homegrown national ski champion and Olympic hopeful Jill Kinmont, as depicted in her biopic The Other Side of the Mountain. And it remains so today for residents, young and old, of this community — small and remote, but blessed with an unparalleled abundance of natural beauty.

The first snow sometimes surprises in late August, but more typically arrives between mid-September and the first week of October. It is indeed a thrill to awaken on a crisp autumn morning, look toward the Sierra Crest, and see Mt. Tom’s triangular peak, now candescent with white, jutting into an impossibly blue October sky. For residents of this rugged region, the first snow on Mt. Tom represents a demarcation. Summer is over. Fall and winter are ascendant. The aspen have turned and now blaze yellow, tracing the myriad streams that tumble serpentine down the Sierra slopes from high alpine lakes to the valley floor. Social media alights with magnificent autumnal images, beckoning visitors from near and far. Fly fishers, photographers, rock climbers and late-season hikers crowd in from Los Angeles, some 250 miles to the south, for one last fling with nature before the deep snow arrives in earnest.

But this is 2020, and a sickly pall has descended upon the Owens Valley and settled across the whole of the High Sierra.

First came the pandemic, which in March prematurely closed the nearby Mammoth Mountain ski area, one of the region’s primary economic engines. In April, officials cancelled the opening day of trout season, known as Fishmas in these parts — an annual event whose 100,000-plus devotees flock to Sierra with the fervor of Alabama-Auburn football fans. As California state lockdowns extended into June, the normal stream of nature enthusiasts, drawn from the over 20 million Southern Californians who consider the area their backyard outdoor adventureland, slowed to a trickle.

Then came the fire. And not just any fire, but the Creek Fire, which ignited on the heavily forested west slope of the Sierra, walled off from Bishop and Mammoth by massive granite peaks, though located a mere 30 miles west as the eagle flies.

What began as a wisp of smoke in a backcountry canyon during the first week of September, exploded into the largest single-source fire in California history.

The Creek Fire’s specific cause is still under investigation. But the underlying reason is undeniable: climate change.

A multi-year drought in the Sierra stretched from 2011 to 2017, gripping the region with a severity unseen in over a millenia. This was followed by an infestation of bark beetles, small, black insects about the size of a grain of rice that bore into drought-stressed trees, disrupting the flow of nutrients from roots to crown. The result has been devastating. A 2019 study by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection estimates that some 150 million Sierra conifers have been stricken by the one-two punch of drought and bark beetle. Today, once velvet-green expanses of pine forest are marred by rust-colored blotches — stands of dead, bone-dry trees ready to ignite like Roman candles with the slightest spark.

And that’s just what happened when the Creek Fire broke out. Flames devoured the ailing forest with such rapacity that a pyrocumulous cloud — typically associated with volcanic eruptions — billowed some 50,000 feet into the stratosphere. The fast-rising smoke, ash and heat generated its own weather, complete with lightning and EF2 fire tornadoes, whose winds were estimated at up to 125 mph. Atmospheric scientists studying the event claim it was the most explosive and highest fire-generated plume they’d ever recorded.

The sheer volume, density and day-after-day relentlessness of smoke has astonished residents. There have, of course, been fires in the Sierra before. But mostly in July or August. And mostly the smoke persists for three or four days, a week at the most. No living person here can recall a two-month-long siege of fire and smoke stretching from September to November. But it’s not as if no one was warned. In 2016, a study by Climate Central determined that the fire season in the Western U.S., due to climate change, has been extended by over three months, from 150 days in 1970 to over 250 days today.

A bad smog day in Los Angeles might register between 100 and 150 on the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality index. Anything over 300 is deemed hazardous and warrants a health emergency.

Since the start of the Creek Fire, AQI readings in Mammoth and Bishop have frequently spiked beyond 1,000 and sometimes 2,000, with daily averages often pushing above 500. The EPA recommends that everyone stay indoors under such conditions.

For a nearly 200-mile stretch of the Eastern Sierra, pine-scented mountain air has given way to a toxic stew of ash, smoke and fine particulate. Towering ranges vanish whole into the thick haze. Cars on Highway 395, the Eastern Sierra’s north-south transportation artery, travel with headlights on at midday. The overhead sun is a pale disk. Toward sunset, the atmosphere takes on a reddish-orange, otherworldly Martian hue.

Advice for staying indoors is anathema in this region. Outdoors is the raison d’etre here. It is the economic lifeblood.

This year, the high country trails and national forests, first closed due to pandemic, have again been shut down since Labor Day due to fire danger, not to mention the hazardous air. The result is a local economy that’s been pummeled by pandemic and smothered by smoke.

“This place was an absolute ghost town in the spring,” says Lynne Greer, one of my former Bishop High classmates and owner of June Lake Junction, a combination gas station, grocery store, deli, and rest stop nestled amid the pines along Highway 395, about a dozen miles north of Mammoth Lakes. “But then in July and August, we got crazy busy. People didn’t care if all that was available was a hot dog, water and that they had to sleep in the dirt; they just couldn’t stay home anymore.”

But then came the fire, smoke and forest closure, and an already difficult year became almost too much to bear.

In the Eastern Sierra, like much of the West, there is a strong conservative and libertarian streak that stretches back over 150 years. People here are distrustful of the government, and butting heads with the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management is a kind of sport. Washington, D.C., is so distant both geographically and culturally that it registers only as concept. So when scientists and politicians first began talking about climate change over two decades ago, most residents here greeted that news with a hard-headed stubbornness, viewing it with skepticism or simply rejecting it outright as just another ploy by city folk to threaten their rural way of life.

But make no mistake, the people here have a deep and abiding love for the land, for nature, for the forest, for the mountains. And they understand the nuances of this unique ecosystem better than just about any outsider.

As such, their views on climate change have softened. You can hear it in their voices when discussing the topic. The tone has shifted from combativeness to accommodation.

Of course, having a monster fire in your backyard has a way of making the once-deniable undeniable.

“I consider myself an environmentalist,” says Greer. “I believe the climate is changing. But I don’t believe you manage a forest by shutting a gate. There are some extreme environmental groups who were happy that the forest closed. They’d like to see wilderness from the mountaintop to the valley floor. But I don’t think that’s reasonable. We understand the power of these mountains and what they mean to people, especially in these times.”

My father Ben Collins, now 82 and retired near Sun Valley, ID, began his 31-year career with the Bureau of Land Management as an 18-year-old summer Range Conservationist whose duties included fighting wildfires. He would later earn a degree in forestry and range management from the University of Idaho. In Bishop, where I attended high school, he was Area Manager of the BLM’s Field Office, serving as steward for over 750,000 acres of wild rangeland held in trust in perpetuity for the American people. It was a job he took seriously. Nearly the size of Rhode Island, his purview stretched from Mono Lake in the north to Death Valley in the south, and was home to an array of ecological wonders, including rare varieties of big horn sheep, desert primrose, endangered pupfish, and all manner of flora and fauna in between.

He also knows a thing or two about wildfires, having served on BLM hotshot crews for several summers early in his career, fighting fires up close and personal from Alaska to Idaho to Wyoming to Nevada.

“Most of the fires we encountered were in the 20,000 to 100,000-acre range. These fires today are absolute monsters. Personally, I’d be afraid to get anywhere near them. The fact that 200,000- and 300,000-acre fires are now commonplace is something I have a hard time wrapping my head around. The Creek Fire should be a wake up call for everyone to get aggressive about addressing climate change. But I fear it might be for naught — just another ecological death rattle.”

The Owens Valley is the deepest in the United States. It runs north-south over 100 miles on the western edge of the Great Basin, a block-fault formation created when the Sierra Nevada rose like a drawbridge to the west and the Inyo and White Mountain Ranges like a drawbridge to the east. The twin ranges are some 20 miles apart, with the 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the Lower 48, situated on the Sierra side and White Mountain Peak at 14,252 feet punctuating the eastern range. Bishop, on the Owens Valley floor, sits at just above 4,000 feet.

Atop the White Mountains, growing in a narrow band at about 10,000 feet are ancient sentinels — bristlecone pines, the oldest living organisms on the planet. The Methuselah tree, its exact location here a closely guarded secret, has aged 4,852 years. It was a sapling at the dawn of the Bronze Age and has lived through the whole of human civilization. The advent of the wheel, systems of writing, metallurgy and wide-scale agriculture were just being developed in Mesopotamia and Egypt when the Methuselah was young.

Importantly, the bristlecones are careful chroniclers of weather, dutifully recording each season within their rings. Through a method known as dendrochronology, scientists are able to determine precisely how much heat, cold and moisture the trees have experienced in any given year. And thanks to the bristlecones’ remarkable longevity, along with scientists’ ability to match core samples of living trees with those of fallen, but preserved trees in the dry, high-altitude groves, we have an annual weather report stretching back 10,000 years to the end of the Ice Age.

To walk among these ancients, one cannot help but to be filled with a sense of awe. You are visited with the realization that your time on earth is fleeting and humanity is small. It is not unlike the sense you might get gazing into the brilliant band of the Milky Way on a moonless, cloudless night. Or if you are lucky enough to stroll among the pyramids of Egypt or past the marble columns of a forgotten Aegean city.

One of the prominent features of a bristlecone grove is the quiet. At this altitude, there are no birds chirping, no insects buzzing, and with the trees spaced far apart on the steep, flinty soil, the breeze, too, is largely silent. You are left only with the sound of your own breathing and the thump of your own heart. In this environment, the collective voice of the bristlecone is loud, filling your mind with deep contemplation.

And this is what these ancient beings have to say: All things must pass. Even the year 2020. The climate is changing. It is unmistakable. We have the receipts. This period of change is unlike any time over the past 10,000 years and since the dawn of human civilization. But we are just trees. Anchored to the earth. Recording the past. Unable to see or change the future. What you humans do over the coming few decades is everything.

Or at least that’s what I heard the bristlecones telling me during a recent visit.

Across the valley and through the haze, the triangular prominence of Mt. Tom is barely visible. The snow has still not come. And the long-range forecast portends none until perhaps Thanksgiving, or maybe even later. Meanwhile, the Creek Fire still burns, its many tendrils having crept into such remote, rugged country that there is no fighting it. The only thing to do now is to wait for it to be snuffed by the deep snow of a Sierra storm, whose arrival will portend a merciful close to the year 2020, our annus horriblis.

(Update: Snow finally arrived at Mt. Tom on Nov. 6, 2020. Though the first storm of the season storm dropped a foot of snow on the High Sierra, the Creek Fire, now at 380,000 acres and only 70% contained, is so massive that it is still burning, according to the Nov. 7, 2020, report from Cal Fire: “It remains to be seen if this will be a ‘season-ending event’ but the cold air mass and considerable moisture should significantly reduce fire behavior on active parts of the fire. ‘It’s going to take some of the punch out of it but we’re going to continue to have fire on the landscape for quite some time,’ Incident Fire Behavior Analyst Byron Kimball said. ‘With the amount of heat we have out there it’s going to take a significant amount of moisture to put this fire out.’ Cal Fire doesn’t expect full containment until Nov. 30, 2020.”) (UPDATE: The U.S. Forest Service has extended closures throughout the High Sierra through Dec. 31, 2020. Following a light dusting of snow in early Nov., no further snow has fallen and conditions remain dry, windy and dangerous. The Creek Fire has numerous hotspots and continues to smolder and burn on the fringes. A Dec. 8, 2020, USFS bulletin states: “Continued fire activity into December speaks volumes to the dry and long fire year that California has experienced…. The Creek Fire is uncontained along its eastern flank … (and) although the fire area has seen snow, the fire remains at 96% contained and occasional smoke can be observed in the fire perimeter.) (FINAL UPDATE: Cal Fire reports on Dec. 18, 2020, that the Creek Fire is officially out after having been active for an astonishing 105 days.)

Craig K. Collins, a graduate of Bishop Union High School in Bishop, CA, is a San Diego-based writer and the author of Thunder in the Mountains (Lyons Press, 2014) and Midair (Lyons Press, 2016). He has a novel due out in 2021.

Author of Midair (Lyons Press, 2016) and Thunder in the Mountains (Lyons Press, 2014). At work on a novel, as well as a book of historical non-fiction.

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