I recently looked at the California State Government Organizational Chart. It’s fascinating. One Department stacked atop another in ascending order of succession; Offices, Boards, Chief of Staff, and finally on the second to last tier, Secretary of State, Attorney General, and Governor Brown, among others. The top level struck me most profoundly. Above Governor Brown and his Cabinet is one last box, containing the words, “People of California.” We, the People, are the ultimate governmental authority at the local, state, and federal level. Profound. Powerful.

We the People of the Eastern Sierra have been suffering badly for weeks from pervasive, unhealthy, cumulative smoke pollution from the naturally ignited Rough Fire. This fire was the only lightening strike, of many on July 31, 2015 that the Forest Service could not, did not, or would not extinguish. There is no doubt that the start location of this fire is treacherous and too dangerous for fire fighters. Yet, could it have not been put out with helicopters, water, and/or retardant?

By August 14th, this fire had grown to 12,452 acres with only 474 personnel assigned to it, almost 300 of those added during the last 48-hour period, and zero percent containment. The lighting strike ignited wildfire on Wheeler Ridge a couple of years ago was put out by one morning’s worth of helicopter water drops. The cost and effort of containing the Rough Fire, at first, in this way, is absolutely miniscule compared to the $52.1 million spent on it so far. Why was this fire let burn for so long without any meaningful suppression efforts? Why during a four-year drought would a wildfire of this magnitude be let burn without meaningful containment efforts until it jumped the South Fork of the Kings River and ran up Lockwood Canyon, seriously threatening Hume Lake?

The answers to these questions lies in the 2003 Healthy Forest Restoration Act and the 2009 Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. Congress passed these Acts to reverse the mismanagement of our national forests resulting from 100 years of fire suppression and 50 years of logging. These two Acts tasked federal Land Management Agencies (LMAs) with restoring national forest health as well as lowering national wildfire-fighting costs. The main tool for this restoration is fire: prescribed fires, slash pile burning, and naturally ignited fires.

Prescribed fires and slash pile burning are subject to the California Air Resources Board, Smoke Management Plan (SMP) and are authorized and regulated by local Air Pollution Control Districts (Districts). The SMP requires burners to identify smoke sensitive areas such as “towns and villages, campgrounds, trails, populated recreational areas, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, roads, airports, public events, shopping centers, and Class I Areas” (national parks, some wilderness, and monuments) and have contingency plans should smoke impact these sensitive areas.

Naturally ignited fires, such as the Rough Fire and the Cabin Fire in the Golden Trout wilderness, are subject to the 2011 Coordination and Communication Protocol for Naturally Ignited Fires. The objective of this Protocol “is to establish a framework that will be used to minimize smoke/emission impacts from all naturally ignited fires.” This document further states:

The Protocol seeks to develop emission mitigation measures before smoke impacts become a concern. The Districts will provide information regarding air quality based trigger-points that should be used to implement smoke/emission mitigation measures. Trigger points/management action points should be determined by Districts and LMAs, and actions agreed upon as part of the protocol process [ . . . ] LMAs should plan mitigation efforts well in advance of their needed use with District cooperation. In order to ensure that emissions can be minimized prior to the occurrence of substantial smoke/emission impacts, actions need to be planned early in the naturally ignited fire management process.

The pervasive and unhealthy smoke pollution from the Rough Fire in the San Joaquin Valley and Owens Valley/Eastern Sierra region over the last couple of weeks strongly suggests that the Forest Service did not “plan mitigation efforts well in advance of their needed use” to minimize “substantial smoke/emission impacts.”

Many Owens Valley/Eastern Sierra residents are suffering profoundly from Rough Fire smoke pollution health impacts. Studies by scientific organizations such as the American Lung Association, the New England Journal of Medicine, the University of California, Davis, and the Washington State Department of Ecology find that wood smoke has dramatic and negative impacts on human health that can result in lung cancer, heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, congenital heart defects, asthma, and even brain damage as well as a shortened life expectancy.

Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970 specifically because fine particulate matter/air pollution is so toxic to human health. This Act requires federal, state, and local governments, “To protect and enhance the quality of the nation’s air resources so as to promote the public health and welfare and the productive capacity of its population [. . . ]” California is in the process of implementing the nation’s most stringent diesel regulation laws in order to protect air quality and public health/welfare yet the federal LMAs are reversing this good work by filling the void with forest restoration management smoke pollution.

Eastern Sierra residents are not without authority or recourse about smoke events such as the Rough Fire. We are the People. If we do not like the way our federal government Land Management Agencies are managing our public lands, we have the power and the authority to make meaningful changes. Are your parents suffering from smoke induced respiratory distress? Are your children struggling with their asthma? Developing asthma? Has this smoke event cost you doctor visits? Days off from work? Medication expenses? Tourism revenue?

Contact your county supervisors. Tell them how badly you and your family are suffering from the constant exposure to smoke pollution. Ask them to ensure that Eastern Sierra air quality, quality of life, tourism economy, and public health and welfare are safeguarded from future pervasive, unhealthy, cumulative forest management smoke impacts. We the People . . .

About the Author

Liz O’Sullivan has lived in the eastern Sierra for 26 years. She became an advocate for air quality and public health and welfare when the federal land management agencies changed their forest management policy from fire suppression to fire treatment and profoundly degraded the Eastern Sierra’s clean air, tourism economy, and quality of life.