In August, 2014, I wrote an essay about how forests can recover from wildfires for the Sacramento Bee. After the fires in Butte County in 2018, I spent six months collaborating with a woman whose family had lost two homes, containing four generations of memories, in Paradise. “Simple Objects.” I wanted to understand what we retain when we lose. Since then, we’ve all lost so much more.
In 2017, with the Santa Rosa fire, I had a too-close experience, trying to drive from Petaluma to Sacramento. Since then, what I’ve lost is my optimism that we’ll ever feel safe in California again.
This is what I wrote in 2014, with a few updates.
After the Rim fire devastated more than 250,000 acres of the Sierra Nevada and part of Yosemite National Park, I wondered how forests recover from catastrophic fire and what that process looks like.
With Eric Knapp, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, I got lucky. In 2007, he had discovered 1929 research maps in a dusty cupboard in his office. These maps documented an experimental research forest in an area that hadn’t experienced a forest fire since 1889. As if on a treasure hunt, he searched the National Archives and found corresponding records in old leather-bound ledgers.
Traveling to the Stanislaus-Tuolumne National Forest, about 30 miles east of Sonora, Knapp followed the maps. Hiking into the forest, he found the original research sites, including identification tags still nailed to the trunks. He remapped each site to compare how the forest had changed over 85 years — from soil to shrubs to trees and to the forest canopy.
By comparing the old maps to the growth of the plots today, his intention was to measure how forests best recover from fire, and to learn what creates a more diverse and resilient forest.
Knapp and his student assistants preserved the forest sites from the 1929 map and established new, adjacent study areas. They performed prescribed burns in the fall of 2013. They will compare two main management concepts, documenting restorative capacity- new growth and wildlife, in each of the two experimental areas. One, the variable groups of trees and spacing, characteristic of natural forest structure, and two, even spacing of a highly altered forest, as is often found in harvesting.
Knapp sent me into the burned experimental areas with his assistants.
We moved softly over hot, dusty soil, ash poofs into air with each step. One raven called and several bright orange butterflies provided the only excitement in this hushed place.
Bark looked and felt like burned popcorn.
Ominous holes pit the forest floor, evidence of once mighty cedar, oak, fir and pine. The ground is deceptive. I’m warned to avoid areas where fire has devoured trunks and followed mighty roots far into the earth, leaving treacherous voids just under the surface.
Twenty months after the prescribed burns, I clearly saw the difference between the two experiments. In the first, variable spacing allowed sun to reach the forest floor. While some seeds wait for light, others wait for fire. Lilac seeds that can hide in soil for a hundred years have been liberated, sprouting green shoots from the barren soil. Vibrant green oak leaves sprout from stumps.
In the second experiment, the shade of uniformly dense trees has prevented new growth. I touched the remnants of a pine bough, brittle, sharp and dangerous.
The surviving canopy above provides the only color in this barren landscape.
Back in 2014, Knapp was optimistic about what these experiments will reveal. He said, “We don’t manage for short-term conclusions, but for long-term. Maybe in five years, we’ll have answers.”
Now, I wonder how optimistic he is, six years later. His US Forest Service page says that this is still an ongoing investigation. The original plots may remain, but do they reflect how a forest is responding the an acceleration of extreme conditions since?
The Rim fire was a landscape of extremes then, but patchy forest and meadows were already flourishing with grasses, lupine, lilies and tree seedlings.
Now, catastrophic fires are too deadly and too hideously common. Scorched areas have expanded, sterilized of life producing plants, that must still depend on man and the wind. Or take another 150 years to recover.