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Dry conditions in the Sierra Nevada call for campfire vigilance

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Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of the fair-weather backpacking season in California's Sierra Nevada. Fresno backpackers headed to the wilderness this weekend should be aware of the increased risk of fire in the high Sierra this year.

ABC30 Action News reported earlier this week that the National Park Service is carefully monitoring moisture levels in the soil in Sequoia and Kings Canyon Parks and will implement fire restrictions if conditions warrant. Despite recent precipitation, the parks are dry overall, which sets up a potentially hazardous scenario.

Precipitation levels at the park are at 50 percent of normal. With the ordinarily drier summer season approaching, the likelihood of reducing that percentage is decreasing. The high country naturally sees less rain in the summer, and this year the effects of that seasonal pattern will be magnified by the already low levels of moisture in the ground. Officials report that the dry conditions present now are likely to worsen.

Backpackers play an important role in safeguarding the wilderness from wildfire. Dry conditions call for special vigilance when using lighters and camp stoves.

  • Clear away pine needles, leaves, duff and other organic debris in the area where a flame will be used. This step is particularly important for backpackers who use wood-burning stoves or fire rings.
  • If using a fire ring, make the smallest fire that will adequately serve your cooking and cleaning needs. Large fires are unnecessary and particularly risky during severe dry spells.
  • Never leave open flames unattended. Camp stoves of every type should be monitored at all times, even during simple tasks like boiling water.
  • Be watchful for embers that may escape from wood-burning stoves or open fires when fuel is being added or stoked. Be certain that fires are completely extinguished before turning in for the night or leaving the campsite.
  • Pour copious amounts of water on ashes and unburnt fuel, and mix in dirt or sand to ensure that a fire is out. Blow lightly on extinguished fuel and ash and watch for the telltale glow of live embers.
  • If warmth or embers remain, continue extinguishing the site, and stay there until you are confident that the fire will not rekindle. These precautions apply at sites where a wood-burning stove has been used as well. Even the small amount of hot ashes generated by portable wood stoves are enough to be the source of a wildfire if conditions are right.

Backpackers have a responsibility to prevent ill effects from human activity in the wilderness. Even though wildfire is a natural and necessary phenomenon in the high Sierra, few events are more unfortunate than a devastating fire that can be traced to human inattention.

Another season is here to enjoy in the nearby high country. This year's dry conditions mean that backpackers must take special care to protect and preserve these majestic places for today and the future.

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