The Future of the Rim Fire?

These are 2011 views of the A-Rock/Meadow Fire re-burn, within Yosemite National Park, after 4 years of “recovery”. The actual “recovery” time is now at 24 years, since the original A-Rock Fire raged through majestic old growth. You can barely make out the road into Yosemite Valley. You might also notice a lack of any conifer trees growing back.

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Even fire-adapted oak trees are doing very poorly, and the large snags from the previous stand, before the A-Rock Fire in 1989, are completely gone. Remember, no salvage logging happened away from roadside hazard trees.

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This is how the Sierra Nevada “recovers” from catastrophic wildfires. It can take hundreds of years to re-grow a forest, without help from humans. Indeed, Yosemite is a living laboratory, and it is clearly showing us some “lessons learned”. It is also clear that any Yellowstone recovery parallel to Sierra Nevada wildfires is not supported by actual results.

 

34 Comments

  1. Think how much hotter it is on the ground there than it was when there were some trees for shade.
    (I think about this each time I hike through a burned area when the suns out.)
    The public somehow needs to be made aware that forest fires are highly destructive and add to making the world a hotter place. Enough of this “forests need fire”. Was the area planted?
    Thanks for the pictures Larry. I could see parts of the Siskiyou’s looking like this after the Biscuit re-burns.

    • point taken, I think people like Hansen who extol the benefits of fire have not grasped what reburns can do and it is not pretty. With a changing climate, we are likely going to see a lot more like this.

      I am surprised to see that the oaks have not done better but I know little about oak ecology.

  2. Here is a more current view, three years later:

    https://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&ll=37.714236,-119.742254&spn=0.007613,0.016512&t=h&z=17

    Once I find a few more of my old slides of the 1990 view of the A-Rock Fire aftermath (then scan them), I’ll put together a post of “repeat photography”, like Bob has been pushing me to do.

    It would also be interesting to do the same with the Biscuit Fire. Next year would be ten years after I worked there and shot a bunch of digital photos.

  3. Kind of obvious what happens, or should I say doesn’t happen when a fire burns so large that there isn’t any adjacent seed source to regenerate the area and the native species doesn’t require fire to open the cones.

    But then this is nature’s way so it must be beautiful and I am just so stupid that I can’t see it.

    Not much carbon storage happening here either. Again, I guess that I am just stupid because I thought one of the objections to logging was because we need to store carbon. I guess that I just need to go back to an environmentalist approved college and unlearn everything that I learned in college and the 40+ years since then. I am so ashamed of my ignorance, my total life has been a waste.

    Sorry about the sarcasm, I know that it and the fallacies that it points out, still won’t be recognized by those who are blinded by emotion.

    • Emotion does work both ways. I was truly saddened on a fundamental level when I realized the extreme growth of the Rim Fire wasn’t a typo. The tripling of acres from 16,000 to 54,000 acres was a shock. The next day, it doubled, and I knew that this was a uniquely catastrophic wildfire. I was, literally, stunned and depressed, knowing that my “backyard” would never be the same. Once Yosemite re-opens, I’ll be taking a trip up there, to check on some of the places I know so well. This disaster is far from being over with, as this winter looks to be above normal. The Tuolumne River watershed serves many large cities and towns.

  4. Larry

    Yes, I too was saddened as a lover of forests, as a forester, as an informed environmentalist and as a former visitor to the environs around and in Yosemite.

    My point was that my emotions don’t get in the way of wanting to do what is right for healthy forests, the other components of their ecosystems, and a healthy planet. My sarcasm was that the emotions and wants of some has caused them to close their eyes and minds and refuse to even listen to or recognize any evidence that might possibly refute their mantra and force them to exert some effort to study both sides of the issue in order to learn the truth and come to their own informed opinion rather than just blindly swallowing environmentalist propaganda.

  5. Jerry Franklin is a capable forester and ecologist and although not as extreme as Hanson, who really needed to enjoy our extensive burns in Oregon, Jerry has also written lately on the value of post fire habitat full of snags and critters and whatever. I was not too wild about it myself, having seen enough of it, and nobody could convince me that the snag forests in Biscuit were something we wanted. I honestly do not give a —- about woodpeckers although I do see how useful they can be. I reckon we got a lot of em in Oregon where salvage of federal lands since 2000 has been minimal. 5000 acres on Biscuit with huge buffers and lots of wildlife snags.

    The point is well made by franklin about how much more diverse the un salvaged and unplanted portions of St Helens are these days. I get the point.

    But post fire habitat is one thing while a reburn is another in my book.

    I do not know how common such reburns are. There is are famous ones in the Great Burn area of ID/MT but I am not familiar with others and the impacts.

    • Greg: The most famous example of reburns is the “6-Year Jinx” of Tillamook Fires in 1933, 1939, 1945, and 1951. These were preceded by numerous large fires, perhaps the best known being the 1918 Cedar Butte Fires and portions of the 1902 and 1910 fire complexes. You are familiar with the Silver Complex-Biscuit Fire reburn. Maps, photographs and eyewitness accounts of these events are a focus of my dissertation, which is a good starting point for their study and is available online: http://www.nwmapsco.com/ZybachB/Thesis/Zybach_PhD_2003.pdf

      So far as Mt. St. Helens is concerned, my mother’s family lived in Cougar, which is a town along the Lewis River near the base of the mountain. My grandfather and his brother Ben logged from there their whole lives and their brother Al was a forester who also managed a family tree farm. They were intimately familiar with the woods, fish, and wildlife on the mountain, having hunted, fished, and trapped it’s slopes from the times when they were small children. They were also very familiar with the Indian prairies, old burns, lava flows, cedar flats, reservoirs, lakes and berry patches of the mountain and the diversity those areas provided on a landscape-scale. Thanks to the eruption of 1982, geologists also became familiar with the mountain’s eruptive history, too, beginning with eyewitness accounts in the early 1840s. Given this history of imposed and man-made diversity, I wonder if the values Franklin finds there today are mostly ephemeral, or even that desirable. From an aesthetic standpoint, I know what I prefer.

  6. I am also not seeing the claimed “richest diversity of wildlife” in burned landscapes that people like Hanson keep spouting. Remember, this was once an old growth stand, managed by experts for thousands of years. I’m sure that there were 400 year old trees throughout this area. Tree ring studies said that fires once burned about every ten years, here. MOST of the Rim Fire is re-burn.

  7. Once again, I fail to see what these pictures show or “prove.” It would certainly be interesting if we’d have the same exact photo point taken at the same time every year over the past 1,000 years, or even 5,000 years. All this hand-wringing is sort of comical to me, especially considering that maybe one or two of us will live to be century old, and the rest of us live on this Earth but a blink of an eye to these evolving and adapting ecosystems. Putting human emotions onto complex ecosystems seems pointless.

    As someone who hunts for elk and deer deep in Wilderness and roadless areas I can say for certain that I’ve observed tremendous wildlife activity and biodiversity within post-wildfire landscapes. Elk, deer, bear, mountain lion, wolves, coyote, countless bird species, voles/mice, owls, snakes, etc all seem to colonize and re-colonize a recovering burned forest/landscape and I haven’t had any issues drinking directly from creeks and springs in the year(s) immediately following wildfire.

    • Owls and goshawks USED to nest here but, these endangered species probably won’t return to nest for, oh, about 200 YEARS, if everything works out “right”. On the other hand, I think that today’s man could “restore” nesting habitat much faster than “whatever happens”, in today’s modern world. Indians expertly managed this particular piece of land, producing huge cathedral-like forests. I’m fine with this result, in National Parks, although you cannot say that this is “natural”. However, it IS a perfect example of what NOT to do in “protected” owl and goshawk nesting areas, in our National Forests. Sure, common species continue to use this landscape but, not in the numbers that were here before the stand-replacing wildfire(s). I think most people would say that this forest has been truly “destroyed”, compared to the 400 year old pines that used to be here. Yes, even black-backed woodpeckers don’t use this spot, anymore, despite the fire burning just 6 years ago. How many times have we repeated this destruction, and how many more patches of rare habitats will be destroyed by “whatever happens”???

      An important question is: Does the public want MORE of these barren, re-burned landscapes, where there used to be endangered species habitats???

      • Larry, this reminds me of the other Stephens et al. op-ed that Matthew posted here...

        Land managers could anticipate changes using models of species distribution and ecological processes and should consider
        using assisted migration ( 12). Dominant forest species may be unable to recover from fi res with large high-severity patches. Replacement ecosystems of shrublands or grasslands may provide some ecological benefi ts, but they offer very different habitats for wildlife and have reduced carbon storage relative to native forests.

        So scientists in that op-ed said that some of these treeless patches are not so good for ecological reasons and should perhaps be planted (er…”assisted migration” seems to be the academic phrase of the day.. ) .

        So there are ecological benefits and costs and the ultimate question is not what “ecology wants” because there is no such thing, but rather which ecosystem services we prefer.

        • So, will “assisted migration” include herbicides?? In the Yosemite area, planting probably will not be able to overcome the resilience of bear clover. In a previous post on the Power Fire, I posted a picture of bear clover dominating the site. Additionally, deerbrush growth was explosive where the bear clover allowed it. Six years after it burned, it still remains unplanted, because the herbicide plan hasn’t went through all the channels.

          Note the difference between private lands, and Forest Service ground!

          https://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&ll=38.499675,-120.338611&spn=0.003766,0.008256&t=h&z=18

          Another example within the Power Fire

          https://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&ll=38.49729,-120.368448&spn=0.003766,0.008256&t=h&z=18

            • You KNOW I didn’t upload this view, Matt. You’re getting obsessed and desperate to shout me down. I must be hitting a nerve, eh, Matt??? *smirk* Look at the zoomed-in map links I just posted, bud, and tell me I didn’t get my point across. BTW, ALL those clearcuts are on private lands!! Of course, I don’t like clearcutting. Another issue, altogether.

              • What in the world are you talking about Larry? “Desperate to shout you down?” Please….

                And yes, I looked at your “panned-in” view. I still fail to see what “point” you are trying to get across with these photo (or google images) that don’t even come close to telling the whole story, especially when ecosystems and landscapes change and evolve over time.

                • I will spell it out, again, just for YOU, Matt. My point in posting the Power Fire images is that replanting is doomed to failure without salvage logging and herbicides, in this part of the Sierra Nevada. The brush and bearclover will choke out any conifer regeneration. It is important to realize that, and my examples show what is ACTUALLY happening, instead of theory and modeling. Ditto for my pictures of actual sites.

                  • Larry, if what you say is true, that without “salvage logging and herbicides in this part of the Sierra Nevada” that “brush and bearclover will choke out any conifer regeneration” (do you mean for 10 years? 50 years? 100 years? Forever and ever and ever?)….

                    Than how in the world did that part of the Sierra Nevada ever have some conifer forests in the first place?

                    P.S. Also, Larry, no need to get all aggressive with the ALL CAPS “YOU.” Let’s keep it civil, shall we?

                  • Ok but how did those areas regenerate in centuries past?

                    Slow regen might not be such a bad thing resulting in diverse sizes and age classes but with a reburn we might see a shift in veg to non forest.

                    I am not sure why salvage is so important for regen. To forestall tree fall that kills seedlings.?

                    In any case, the area that might be salvaged and treated in rim fire will likely be minimal leaving the rest of it to recover or not,

                    • A lot of areas didn’t “regenerate” in past centuries — instead, they were maintained as stable mosaics of desired species, such as beargrass, camas, huckleberries, sugar pine, scouler’s oak, etc.

                      Shade, tree fall, wildfire risk, economics, aesthetics, and risk to workers and/or visitors are all good reasons to salvage snags ASAP following a stand replacement event. And there go the age classes . . .

                    • Of course, I was talking about accelerating the return of forests by reducing bear clover and brush, as well as diminishing the threat of catastrophic re-burns and excessive soil damages (according to that landmark Biscuit soil study). “Snag thinning” is a better description of what salvage projects seek to do.

                      I haven’t yet ventured up there, to see what burned hot and what didn’t but, I would bet money that there will be excessive bark beetle mortality in the coming years. I would expect that the earlier post-fire plantations will get treated, and there will be some dead mature timber harvested from non-Pac areas. I don’t think there will be large volumes coming from the Rim Fire, though. I wonder if the Park will be selling hazard trees. I did see a log truck coming out of Yosemite Valley, this year!

                    • How is salvage going to forestall bear grass and shrubs? You can just plant the heck out of it to get the trees in, you do not need to log it to accomplish that, You will lose some later to tree fall but with natural regen and planted trees, it should do fine,

                      But how common are regen problems due to bear grass and shrubs across the region? Do other areas regen better and if so..why?

                      And salvage can leave a lot of fuel on the ground, almost none of the salvage area in biscuit outside roadside hazard had fuels treatments. That is going to cost a lot.

                      And with the limited area of Rim likely open to salvage in the end, few places will get treatments of any kind.

  8. I can admit that is often the case in post fire landscapes but reburns might be another thing. I think that is the issue here. I know that most burned areas in the klamath siskiyou have recovered quite well, and published by Stafford and Hibbs at OSU who examined regen on a number of burns. It was far better than I expected to see.

    It may take awhile but give it 20 years and it will mostly look fine in the KS. And I sure did not expect this. I planted trees all over the KS and had this idea that those rocky slopes only had fir due to cool, moist conditions in little ice age that allowed regen on harsh sites . I thought regen would be poor in Biscuit and I was flat out wrong on that,

    But a reburn that kills the regen and burns up the snags might be another thing. I think that is the point larry is making here. How typical this is I do not know. Silver fire burned siskiyou in 1988 with about 15% in high intensity fire. The 2002 reburn in Biscuit came in about the same for intensity and little looked as bad as larry’s pics show.

    However it is surely the case that a reburn is going to take out a lot of snags and your down woody debris. This is what Donato found in his studies on biscuit reburn of silver.

    • Donato ignored the fact that even after logging, there was still enough re-gen to meet reforestation standards. Yes, you will often see vast carpets of tiny seedlings after forest fires. Besides, if no helicopter logging had occurred, the snags would fall and wipe out parts of thickets of crowded re-gen, anyway. He also conveniently ignored the reality of re-burns. Of course, not every re-burn produces results like my Yosemite example. I would expect that wetter sites wouldn’t burn as completely as in Yosemite. Of course, it is all about site-specific science. Sometimes, “nature” throws us a curve, re-seeding burned lands with trees that “shouldn’t be there”, according to classic “natural succession theory”.

  9. That Donato study was criminal, a rehash of stuff that was well-known — you don’t drive cats around two years after a fire on fresh regen. You do it right after the fire.
    On the other hand, there’s the stems per acre issue. Maybe it’s a GOOD thing to run over seedlings because then your stem count is more reasonable and the stems you have are in a less-competitive environment. Donato was distortive trash, twisted beyond belief by a guy who JUST HAPPENED to be one of the eight co-authors of Beschta 1.

    • Dave – welcome to the blog. Despite what you see today folks are generally civil. “Criminal” and “trash” are. not as helpful as your other comments. Like…”we knew before Science published it that cats crush seedlings when they run over them.” I know regulars slip up regularly.. but trying to start off on the right foot..

      • I think that a resurvey of the donato salvage units will show little or no difference, Plenty more seedlngs came in in following years and salvage impacts on regen were likely irrelevant in long run.

        The salvage impact on regen surprised me, I cannot figure how it happened since ground disturbance was very minimal, I walked all the donato units. One large unit was slated for cable logging ( flattop 21 I think) but the company got it so cheap it decided to use copters.

        They did resurvey those units a year ago but I have not seen the data.

        A large part of the reason for biscuit salvage, as pushed by some at OSU was to make money for reforestation when it turned out that the regen was fine. Surprise surprise. And a surprise to me.

        But the point was well made by donato that salvage left a lot more fuel on the ground. Those salvage units saw little slash burning except for roadside hazard logging.

        Whatever, I much appreciate your intercession here Sharon and I can see that dredging up Donato is hazardous to civil discourse,

        I was the scientist who wrote the letter to the editor of Science and the NW congressional delegation correcting some misinformation.

        Best if we not delve into that sore issue again.

        • One last delve, Greg: Yes, the regeneration was fine, but what we found near Babyfoot Lake was that the old-growth sugar pine and doubly-“protected” Brewer’s spruce were being replaced by invasive Douglas-fir. Too, areas of beargrass, azalea and Scouler’s oak (I think that’s what they’re called — low-acid, high elevation, prized by Indians) are being shaded out. A good reason for planting is to establish (or re-establish) desired species so they’re not replaced by more opportunistic plants (“Douglas-fir”): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcG-tNw6_2o

          (I think I may have posted this clip here before, but in a different context)

  10. surprised me too up on flattop but that really big unit was a northerly slope so that might explain it and there were enough green trees upslope to rain down seed, I never did see the data from each unit and can;’t remember what the pub said exactly but apparently regen was good across all surveyed areas. And that big flattop unit left a lot of snags, with almost no ground disturbance except where trees were felled, Donato et al could not explain the seedling mortality either.

    Very little logging slash too, I viewed it as an example of how to do salvage right with half the area in riparian buffers. Pointing this out to people made me a lot of enemies but if there had been a negotiated settlement, this is what I would have asked for.

    And I detested contentions that the FS was deliberately violating riparian buffer regs, I checked them all on fiddler and they got it 96% right. I told the feds I was willing to testify on their behalf. As I put out to the public, I don;t abide slander and character assassination directed at public employees.

    But at $40/mbf, it did not pay for the feds to take the trouble on flattop. Why bother? It only had one bidder, 8 of the 12 Biscuit sales had only one bidder. Can I expect to see the same with Rim salvage?

    This is a civil war the FS cannot win on rim fire, a lot of heat and turmoil for what end? Not worth it for the feds and I expect to see them same misinfo being passed on about salvage practices.

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