Explainer: What Happens to the Forest After the Rim Fire?

Stevanie Wazna-Blank | September 11, 2013 | Story News and Features

Though the Rim Fire still isn't dead yet—according to the LA Times yesterday, it was 80% contained—we seem to be entering the end game for the flames, with the number of firefighters assigned to the disaster dropped to 3,000 from a peak of 5,100. And while Tarantulaferno might be distracting us closer to home, there's one big question that remains to be answered—what happens to the environment when the flames go out?

According to Dr. Scott Stephens of UC Berkeley, there are “patches of forest that could take 100 to 200 years to recover naturally.” Thanks to a combination of global warming, species mix, forest management policies stretching back a hundred years, and allegedly poor decision made in the wake of the last major fire in 1987, the Rim Fire could end up leaving scars on the land that will last through our lifetimes.

Climate change is a big reason that the forest won't spring back as quickly. Fire season used to start in June or July—but now starts in April. This longer hot-and-dry season means recovery from the fire will be slower. "Through our research we've discovered that trees are established during wet years, and because forests are drying out it will be harder for seedlings to get established," says Forest Service Research Scientist and UC Davis faculty member, Malcolm North.

The forest also has a particularly bad mix of plants for recovery. None of the conifers, like the Ponderosa Pine, the Sugar Pine, the White Fur and the Douglas Fur, will be able to naturally regenerate, because they store their seeds in cones (like pine cones) that hang from branches, and are vulnerable to fire. At least the native California Black Oak may increase in numbers, because it keeps dormant buds in an organ beneath the soil. Meanwhile, shrub fields will regrow quickly. That's an issue, because these plants are highly flammable. The brush can easily ignite, and according to North can cause a self-reinforcing cycle of fire and shrubbery.

Another factor to consider about the Rim Fire is that it burned on both National Park land and US Forest Service land—a big distinction for fires. The National Park almost never gets involved when a natural fire occurs. If the weather isn't extreme, then they let the process happen naturally and let the fire clear out underbrush. By contrast, Forest Service Land has buildings and homes, making it more difficult to let fires burn their course—and making the fires that do happen that much worse. “Fire suppression has been the policy of the land since 1910,” says Stephens. These lands experience brush build-up, or what’s called “fuel loading”, which makes fires that do occur of a higher intensity. Recovery of this land will take longer. However, human intervention could decrease this slow timeline to recovery. But, according to North, "it depends on whether there's a budget for it."

A final challenge is the legacy of a previous major fire. Replanting occurred after the Stanislaus Complex fire in 1987. Yet as The Examiner pointed out, the replanting was uniform and allowed to grow densely due to a lack of funds—thus fuel loading the area. “These trees were planted uniformly, weren’t treated after planting and very vulnerable to wildfires,” says Stephens, who agrees that there’s collectively been management actions that have contributed to out of control fires like the Rim Fire.

All told, it means that you'd better get used to majestic vistas of burned out lands. They'll be here for a while.

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