Regrowth and the Rim Fire

19 Jul

The day after the EcoSummit I headed to Tuolumne County to attend the Forestry Institute for Teachers. The workshop was amazing and I learned a ton. I even got to go on a field trip to see areas of the Rim Fire burn that are still closed to the public. The week was so packed with new ideas, opposing viewpoints, and information that I’ve sat down to write about it nearly ten times, and I struggled to get it into words.

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Just for reference, here’s a picture I took in July of 2012, from a popular view point on Highway 120, called Rim of the World. It overlooks the Tuoloumne Canyon in the Stanislaus National Forest. The Rim Fire was started along the riverbank in this canyon on August 17, 2013. This is what it looks like now:

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The Rim Fire was huge, the third largest in California, and it spread at a truly frightening rate. There were several factors affecting this. The weather conditions were perfect for fire; hot and dry. More importantly, the fuel load, after nearly a century of suppressing the small fires that would have removed young trees and dead or downed material, was enormous. The result was a fire that was awe inspiring in it’s power, and truly frightening for the people and communities in its path.

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I knew going into this that fires are an important and natural part of Sierra Nevada ecology. I also knew that forests have a way of recovering after a fire. Post burn, the area gets overgrown, first with grasses and herbs, then shrubs and bushes, and finally, trees. This is called succession and it actually increases the diversity within a forest. But seeing this in action was so much more powerful than knowing about it from a textbook.

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This picture was taken near the center of the burned area looking back towards the Rim of the World. You can see that it got hot here, the trees burned all the way up into their crowns. But when you look in the foreground you see grass and flowers that have sprouted since the burn. In the background there are patches of green on the hillsides.

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Every patch of green seemed like a miracle in this landscape of charcoal and dust.

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But they weren’t really. They were just a natural part of succession. The forest was growing back, as it has for thousands of years.

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There has been a lot of controversy over what should be done in this area post burn. Some are pushing for a hands-off approach: Leave it and let the massive burned areas recover slowly without any artificial replanting. Others are advocating salvage logging to remove snags, and jump-starting the process of succession by replanting and the suppressing shrub growth long enough for the trees to take over again.

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The thing that I really and truly admired the institute organizers for doing was walking this volatile minefield. They worked hard to create a dialog between the many conflicting viewpoints of people who care deeply about what happens in forests. I won’t say that I agreed with everything I heard this week, but I appreciated hearing it.

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In terms of acreage Stanislaus National Forest was the hardest hit by the Rim Fire. The Environmental Impact Statement, the document that will guide the management of this area in the future has only been released in it’s draft form. I hope when it is finalized that it will offer compromise, a representation of the dialogue I heard over my week at FIT.

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Meanwhile, this summer has been hotter than last year, and the winter was so dry and mild that there were parts of the Rim Fire that were still smoldering in the spring. Everyone is tense, worried that the next mega fire will sweep through our neck of the woods.

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~Robin

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2 Responses to “Regrowth and the Rim Fire”

  1. Mara July 19, 2014 at 5:11 pm #

    Great post Robin! I really like the before and after shots that really show the difference that the fire made.
    Curious if at FIT they just talked about succession in the old school of though: Pioneer plants, followed by Primary, then Secondary, and finally Climax forest? Because succession as a predictable model has been questioned over the years. Out of something like 5 million acres that burned at the turn of the century in ID WY MT less than a million acres today are forested. Lotš of possibilities exist including human influence.
    After the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens “they” said nothing would grow for years, the ash killed everything, etc. Yet, as your photos show, nature is amazing in how it regenerates.
    Keep posting and don’t forget, we still have a swim date 🙂

    • wanderdrossel July 19, 2014 at 5:31 pm #

      I didn’t know that!

      The biggest debate that seems to be happening around regrowth and the rim fire is whether or not, in big patches where it got really hot, there are enough living trees to reseed the forest. There’s also a lot of concern that these sections will become chaparral rather than forests.

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