Fires in the Sierra Nevada are a natural phenomenon, but with human sparked blazes - like this summer's Rim Fire - the ecology of the mountain range is in flux. Will the high country scorched this summer ever return to its natural glory or will the region of the forest be littered with shrubbery? In this report Valley Public Radio’s Ezra David Romero takes a walk through multiple groves scorched by fires - caused naturally and by the human hand - and speaks with ecologists about the future of the forest burned by the Rim Fire.
There’s a vista off Highway 120 just miles before the Yosemite National Park Entrance that is breath taking - everything as far as the eye can see… is charred.
“We’re standing at the Rim of the World looking at the landscape after the Rim Fire,” says Becky Estes the Central Sierra Province Ecologist for the Forest Service.
It’s been three months since the Rim Fire scorched the Sierra Nevada. Fire response specialists are still working nonstop to prevent erosion from coming winter storms, teams of scientists are preparing environmental reviews and flying over the burn area using laser light technology to sketch maps of the forest for future comparison.
“There are a number of studies literally of five miles of where we are standing with some of the best history in the Sierras that say fires occur basically every 10 years. So we just went 100 years without fires from the turn of the century to now,” says Gus Smith, a fire ecologist for Yosemite National Park.
Estes and Smith are part of a group of ecologists and fire response specialists who are planning the forest’s recovery. They represent agencies with similar, but slightly different missions: the Forest Service focuses on conservation and the Parks Service focus on preservation.
But despite their different approaches, the two agencies agree - the best way to stop future mega fires tomorrow is to fight them with small fires today.
It’s here under what was once a canopy of oak and pine that the fire’s intensity is evident. Nothing is alive.
“So we’re here at the peach grower’s site that burned in the Rim Fire,” Estes says
From there we went to an area of the forest where forest managers had used fire to thin brush and trees.
“This particular area of the road to the north hasn’t been treated and if you look at what’s left there you’ve got a lot of black stems, but if you look across to the uphill side of the road you see that a lot of the needles are intact and you see a lot of stumps. This area had been treated,” says Shelly Crook, a fire planner for Stanislaus National Forest.
While the Forest Service plans to use a mix of planting, tree thinning and fire to restore the forest, the efforts in Yosemite will be less hands-on. Smith says the National Park Service believes it’s best to let the forest recover naturally.
“What the fire did in the park it did and we’ll respond if there are hazardous conditions, but otherwise nature will take care of it and we’ll be left with areas that will be un-treed,” Smith says.
And when it comes to long-term changes in the Sierra Nevada, ecologists from both agencies say that it’s likely some areas that were once filled with dense pines may become home to shrub forests or chaparral.
“In some of these high severity areas where we see high severity patches that are 10 times, 100 times what we would expect to see historically,” Estes says. “I’m sure on the Forest Service side if we don’t go in and replant those they may be retained as a shrub field for 100 to 120 years or so.”
It’ll be decades before we know just how the forest will recover from the Rim Fire. But an area 70 miles south in the Sierra National Forest that suffered a severe fire 20 years ago could offer a clue.
In 1994 the mountain community of Big Creek not far from Huntington Lake was on fire. The 6,000 acre blaze was ignited when a squirrel shorted an electricity transformer.
“We’re walking through an area that burned at a moderate severity that we treated,” says Ramiro Rojas, a silviculturist – someone who looks after trees – for the High Sierra Ranger District.
He’s experimented with reforestation efforts in the Sierras for over two decades. He brought me to an area where three separate strategies for reforestation are in place.
“An area where a fire burned at a moderate intensity, one we treated and one we didn’t,” Rojas says. “And directly adjacent is one that burned slightly higher severity where we planted trees.”
For Rojas trees are his children. He’s planted three quarter of million trees in the forest and has lit fire to all of them, through controlled burns.
“The lesson from the Aspen fire, the Rim Fire, the Manter fire, the McNally fire, from the Rogue fire – I could name fire after fire after fire – is that if we don’t actively change the character of our landscape random events will dictate the kind of forest we have,” Rojas says.
Marc Meyer, an ecologist for the Sierra National Forest, agrees. He says trees in the Sierra Nevada will “continue to grow and produce more biomass and fuels. And without treating those fuels and actually reintroducing fire into the system you’re only going to get more of those fuels that build up and as time goes on, that creates another bomb waiting to explode – another Rim Fire.”
But as long-term plans are debated for the Rim Fire burn areas restoration, the immediate signs of forest regeneration are beginning to show.
“As you look out from just below us from where we’re standing you’ll see the grass that’s come back,” Crook says.
She says that in one year’s time, the brush that was reduced to stubble will be green once again, but for the rest of the forest only time, and the use of fire, will tell.