Controlled burn on Owens Valley floor gets out of control

Jon Klusmire
Register Correspondent

A controlled burn got out of control Monday afternoon and burned 77 acres of sage and brush on the east side of U.S. Highway 395 between Big Pine and Aberdeen.
The wind-driven Calvert Fire featured some 30-foot tall flames, big waves of smoke and came close to the edge of the highway before it was mostly snuffed out around dusk by state, federal and local firefighters with a big assist from an air tanker that dropped fire retardant on the blaze.
There were no reports of injuries to the firefighters and there were no structures on the floor of the Owens Valley where the fire occurred, according to the Cal Fire San Bernardino/Inyo/Mono Unit, the lead agency on the prescribed burn and the fire fight that came after.
Small crews and two bulldozers remained on the scene Tuesday to handle “isolated pockets of smoldering fuel” inside the burn area, “mop up hot spots,” and continue to monitor the burned area, according to Cal Fire.
Cal Fire set the “prescribed fire” at about 9 a.m. in the Goodale Road area (Calvert Slough), between the Owens River and U.S. Highway 395 Monday morning. The fire was the first phase of a planned two-day controlled burn (the burn planned for Tuesday was canceled) targeting about 200 acres of land owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
The fire was intended to “provide for ecosystem restoration, habitat enhancement for multiple species, and protecting nearby communities and the environment from future fires,” according to a press release announcing the controlled burn.
As with all prescribed fires, Cal Fire plans the work well in advance and goes through a lengthy checklist of conditions and concerns before lighting the fire. Weather and wind forecasts are a key part of that checklist. The Monday forecast did not indicate gusty winds.
When the fire was started at 9 a.m., the winds were calm, as evidenced by the large, gray and black smoke flume going straight up into a clear sky until well past 10 a.m. Caltrans had temporary signs north and south of the fire on U.S. Highway 395 announcing the controlled burn and telling motorists not to call in the fire.
But the wind changed and picked up, driving the fire north through the sagebrush. “Due to a change in wind conditions earlier than anticipated, the prescribed fire escaped control lines at approximately 11 a.m.” Cal Fire stated.
The call went out to local volunteer fire departments and federal wildfire units in the valley. In addition, Cal Fire rallied bulldozers to the site, brought in more personnel, and called for the air drop of fire retardant.
The fire trucks and support vehicles staged on Aberdeen Station Road on both sides of U.S. Highway 395. At the height of the incident, about 178 personnel were onsite, with 16 engines, two bulldozers, three water tenders, two helicopters and the air tanker.
A photo from a California Highway Patrol office on the scene showed dark black smoke and flames towering over the fire trucks on Aberdeen Station Road. The smoke from the fire reached Bishop.
The bulldozers cut a big swath of “fire line” through the sagebrush running parallel to the highway south of Aberdeen Station Road. The air tanker dropped a broad, red line of Phos-Chek fire retardant just outside the dozer line. Hand crews hauled hose to hot spots and doused them.
Responding to the fire were Cal Fire units from throughout the Owens Valley, the Big Pine, Bishop, Lone Pine and Independence volunteer fire departments, LADWP, U.S. Forest Service, Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol and the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department.