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Travel Advisory: Heavy Smoke in Owens Valley / Eastern Sierra from Sonoma Fire

Update: see Oct 15 report.


I am writing this blog entry about 100 feet from here in my Sprinter van at 10 PM.

The reason that I am still hunkered down in the White Mountains is severe unhealthy smoke from that horrible killer fire in Sonoma. The winds have blown that smoke to the east. That may look like fog off in the distance, but it is smoke.

Up here at 11,800' down to about 10,000' in this vicinity, the air is crystal clear. But down below up to about 10,000' is smoke, filling the entire Owens Valley and from what I can tell from my vantage point, polluting the Eastern Sierra up to about the 10,500' level. The smoke rings the White Mountains north/south/east/west: in every direction I can see that nasty smoky haze. This one area where I am seems to be an island in the smoke—amazing, but I’ll gladly take it.

Last night it got down to 15°F (23°F inside the cabin), but I was warm and very comfortable on my Exped Megamat with thick wool pad and summer comforter with a Western Mountaineering Cloud 9 comforter. If it gets really cold, then I have the Western Mountaineering Cypress sleeping bag, a wonder of 850+ fill power (really 910), good to -30°F. Ad-hoc insulation has helped by about 6°F.

The Sprinter adventure van has performed like a champ. Started right up at 15°F the day before yesterday—not one hiccup at all in the cold at altitude. It is a 6 cylinder 3 liter turbo diesel with 4WD and tough tires and it doesn’t seem to notice that it is at nearly 12,000' (well, a little lag on 18° slopes here and there). I’ve done all my posts for nearly a week right inside the van. That’s why I’m burning fuel. No CO whatsoever in cabin, checked with pro-grade carbon monoxide meter.

I’m running low on diesel fuel for my Sprinter now (3/8 tank). I use it to heat the cabin morning and evening and to charge the 5 kilowatt battery which runs all my computer gear. I made the mistake one very cold night of sucking down 2 kilowatts for a space heater, but the Sprinter can pump 50-60 amps into it while idling at 960 rpm.

If anyone is coming up here (Patriarch Grove or so) and can bring 5 or 10 or 20 gallons of diesel #2 (no biodiesel!), I’ll pay cash—I don’t want to descend into that nasty smoke filled valley* and I still have water for 3 days and food for more.

* I’ve checked with a friend near Bishop and he says it is about as thick as he has ever seen it, and he can hardly even make out the city. I have asthma, and I don’t want to breathe that smoke if I can avoid it.

It’s almost deserted up here—just the way I like it. Daytime highs are about 50°F, but that feels warm in the sun. When the heat lamp goes behind the hills late in the day, temps plunge below freezing very quickly—it was 28°F inside my van when I got back from a shooting hike. But I relish the cold, at least for brief periods like this.

My family at home in the SF bay area has all the windows closed with several air cleaners going, schools are strictly indoor everything, outdoor events are canceled, etc due to very unhealthy smoke levels. It’s a nuisance and health hazard, but nothing compared to the devastation north of San Francisco—I feel lucky to have never had to confront a fire like that, or a hurricane.

View from 11,800' down to Patriarch Grove, White Mountains of California
f1.8 @ 1/5700 sec, ISO 20; 2017-10-12 12:21:18
iPhone 7 Plus + iPhone 7 Plus back camera 3.99mm f/1.8 @ 28mm equiv (4mm)

[low-res image for bot]

I wanted to get inside my Mercedes Spinter photography adventure van and idle that engine and get the interior up from 28°F (yes, inside) to something more comfortable. So I shot this and more as well, first—work first, warm up and eat later.

Mercedes Sprinter van, Late Dusk at 11800' elevation
f2.8 @ 30.0 sec, ISO 64; 2017-10-12 19:04:56
NIKON D850 + Zeiss Milvus 18mm f/2.8

[low-res image for bot]
Out for a hike
f1.8 @ 1/2900 sec, ISO 20; 2017-10-12 13:33:33
iPhone 7 Plus + iPhone 7 Plus back dual camera 3.99mm f/1.8 @ 28mm equiv (4mm)

[low-res image for bot]

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