Eastern Sierra Communities Must Prepare for Local Impacts of Drought and Climate Change

The “front side” of the Sierra is a not as well-known as the Sierra of Yosemite and Lake Tahoe. But as the drought in California continues and temperatures steadily rise due to climate change, the mountain towns of the Eastern Sierras are increasingly making headline news due to wildfire danger and destruction. Most recently, the small community of Swall Meadows was ravaged by “the distorted reality of fire in winter” which destroyed 35 homes in early February.

The local effects of climate change are obvious throughout the region. This winter there was little snow, but plenty of dust storms. Bark beetles have settled in and trees are dying. Steadily warming temperatures cause more evaporation, so the earth is drier overall and the fire season is much longer — by an average of 70 days — compared with four decades ago. No surprise then, that most of California’s “megafires”, including Yosemite’s horrific Rim Fire, have occurred since 2000. Unfortunately, the number of Sierra fires are projected to double by 2050.

As reported by Julia Sulek in San Jose Mercury News, “Emotions are so deep, you’re numb,” said retired resident Harvey VanDyke. “You know what’s happening. You see what’s happening. You don’t open yourself to it.”

It is clear that community leaders and residents must take collective action to develop workable climate action plans and solutions. ecoAmerica’s report “Beyond Storms and Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change” provides guidance for leaders to help engage the public on climate change through the lens of health and well-being, and to prepare and strengthen communities to withstand these impacts.

California drought: Eastern Sierra community lives with devastating reality of year-round fire season

By Julia Prodis Sulek | San Jose Mercury News | April 25, 2015

BISHOP — The fire came up quickly here in the eastern Sierra Nevada, destroying 35 homes and taking the mountainside community of Swall Meadows by surprise. Who would expect a roiling wildfire — throwing fireballs and whipping up flame whirls through 7,000 acres of sagebrush, piñon and Jeffrey pine — in the dead of winter?

“Three years before, I had 12 feet of snow at my house on that exact date in February,” said volunteer Fire Chief Dale Schmidt, whose Wheeler Crest station in the remote Swall Meadows neighborhood is surrounded by carcasses of burned homes. “Four years ago, they would have had a couple to 3 feet of snow where the fire started. That’s the mental state people were in: Winter is not the season for fire danger.”

As California enters its fourth year of drought, communities across the West are confronting a new reality — a year-round fire season. Perhaps nowhere are the consequences as obvious as in Swall Meadows, where the 300 residents are now shoveling ash instead of snow. Coping with chronic fire danger is the focus of the latest installment of this newspaper’s ongoing series, “A State of Drought.” Since January — the driest and warmest in California history — the state’s firefighters have battled nearly 850 wildfires, twice as many as in a normal year. In 2014, the state endured 1,000 more wildfires than in a typical year.

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