Fire plays an important role in the health of the forests of the Sierra Nevada. The MiWok and other native tribes of the region often burned intentionally to maintain open understory conditions. But starting more than a century ago, nearly all forest fires were suppressed. A “Smokey the Bear” philosophy convinced land managers to extinguish wildfires – even fires that were burning gently and that were actually removing years of accumulated fallen trees, pine needles, branches, and thickets of brush.
Over the past 20 years, scientists have significantly increased knowledge of fire ecology. They have endorsed policies aimed at returning forests to the historic conditions where scattered individual trees, small openings, and small patches of trees created a mosaic of tree cover. When wildfires burned during the hot summer and early fall seasons, such fires primarily burned at low or moderate intensity, since there were no dense thickets of fuel to carry crown fires in waves through the forest.
The challenge facing land managers is how to significantly shift back to those historic conditions. Clearcuts were widespread on public forest for decades, and the resulting replanted tree plantations are highly prone to hot wildfires. Selective logging of other forest areas depleted most of the large, fire-resistant trees, leaving instead small and medium trees that grew into dense, choked forest stands. Both the tree plantations and dense second-growth forests can burn so intensely, often everything is consumed by windblown flames.
The 2013 Rim Fire
The 2013 Rim Fire burned 400 square miles – much of it at high severity. Across a vast core area of the Tuolumne River canyon and the slopes that lead up towards Cherry Lake and towards Femmons Meadow, tens of thousands of acres were incinerated with few conifer trees surviving.
As this picture showed, some areas were totally scorched, with not even a bush surviving. In fact, in some areas, even the down logs were completely consumed, leaving literally nothing but black skeletons of trees.
CSERC staff recognizes that there are competing perspectives – even within the environmental community – as to how to respond to large areas where most trees have been killed and few young trees survived. Some advocate for totally keeping “hands off” and letting such areas take up to a century or longer to become forests again. Others advocate for planting young conifer seedlings and using multiple treatments of herbicide spraying to kill back the brush and other competing plants that would otherwise outcompete the seedlings. CSERC promotes a middle ground. Our staff has walked thousands of acres of the Rim Fire and other burn areas. We know that without reforestation, many areas will not provide habitat for spotted owls, fishers, martens, and pileated woodpeckers for a human lifetime or longer. Currently, many such areas are completely choked by brush. Some intervention is needed if we want trees to regrow.
Just within the Rim Fire, there are literally far more than 300 square miles of burned areas that will never be planted with seedlings -- never be managed for reforestation. For black-backed woodpeckers and wildlife species that thrive in burned habitat and brushfields, vast areas of previous forest stands are now planned to be left untouched by forest managers. But roughly 25,000 acres of the 267,000 overall acres in the Rim Fire are planned for reforestation by the Forest Service. Even that small percentage of the overall fire is unlikely to actually be reforested because the agency has so little funding.
CSERC aims to do all possible to increase the long-term health of the burned ecosystem, including advocating for frequent low-intensity prescribed burning to keep fuel levels low and to make the forest areas more likely to survive summer wildfires. We also advocate for science-based thinning logging treatments combined with prescribed burning to be done in selected areas of green, unburned forests to attempt to mimic the historic., natural conditions of open, park-like scattered trees with clumps and openings.
Unless extreme interests on each end of the spectrum soften their positions and work for a middle ground solution, it is likely that litigation, insufficient government funding, and frustration by Forest Service staff will end up letting most of the burned forest areas of the Rim Fire shift to thickets of brush. It is also likely that the unburned surviving green forest areas still thriving outside of the Rim Fire will suffer extensive damage from wildfires in coming years if inadequate thinning logging treatments and prescribed burning are not done to make green forests more resistant to fire.
CSERC strongly believes that one-size-fits-all beliefs and zealous positions won’t match the unique situation of the Rim Fire.
CSERC aims to do all possible to increase the long-term health of the burned ecosystem, including consideration for the repetitive wildfires that have become the pattern for this portion of the local region. There will clearly need to be trade-offs that consider fuel loading as well as ecological processes, soil health, risks of invasive noxious weeds, and the political realities of limited agency budgets and limited agency personnel.
More about the environmental issues facing the Stanislaus National Forest
This page describes 1 of the 4 major environmental concerns we have about the Stanislaus National Forest. You can read more about Stanislaus Forest issues in general or read about one of the other main concerns here: