The Los Angeles Times
October 27, 2002
Forests Show Resilience as Fires
Despite grim evaluations during summer, officials say
By BETTINA BOXALL
KERNVILLE, Calif. -- As flames leaped across the West this summer, so did the hyperbole. If fires weren't devastating, they were horrific or catastrophic. Colorado's governor at one point declared his state ablaze. Television sets blared the peril to California's groves of giant sequoias.
In August, President Bush tramped through the charred landscape of a fire that had raged across southern Oregon and Northern California and declared the sight a "crying shame."
But now that the smoke has cleared, the scene is not so grim. In the path of each of the major wildfires that captured national attention this year, large swaths of land emerged only lightly burned -- often better off for a much needed forest cleaning.
In Sequoia National Forest, where a fire burned for six weeks and threatened some of the most majestic trees on Earth, only about 8% of the 150,000 acres that burned was severely damaged, according to an analysis by the U.S. Forest Service.
While the most heavily burned timberland will take generations to fully heal, elsewhere new life is already poking through blackened earth. Bouquets of fresh green sprouts are rising from charred stumps.
"People go out there and the first response is, 'Oh, my God, it's horrible,' " said Terry Kaplan-Henry, a hydrologist who is leading emergency recovery work in the Sequoia forest. "It's coming back already. In three years, it probably will look great."
Roughly 6.7 million acres of drought-stressed wild lands burned this year in the continental United States and Alaska, less than in 2000 but enough to make it one of the five worst fire seasons in the last 40 years, according to statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho.
More land may yet burn in places like Southern California, where the fire season will not end until the arrival of soaking rains.
Along with their size, the wildfires' locations drew attention. Big burns in Colorado licked the edges of Denver's suburbs, and tens of thousands of residents were evacuated from the edges of forests in Arizona. In California, flames crept within a mile of sequoias.
The television images of forest infernos spilled onto the political landscape as some Western lawmakers complained that the woods had grown into highly flammable thickets because of environmental regulations.
At the site of a 500,000 -- acre fire in southern Oregon, Bush lamented the consequences of "bad forest policy," and called for an emergency program to increase logging and thinning in federal forests.
Backed by the White House, legislation that would curtail legal challenges to future logging is now pending in Congress.
As it turns out, the Oregon blaze was not the best example of a forest in smoky ruin. Examining the severity of the Siskiyou National Forest fire -- pockets of which are still smoldering -- federal scientists found that roughly 60% of the acreage had been burned relatively lightly or escaped unburned.
"The media in general tends to use those sensationalizing words like 'devastating,' and many times from an ecosystem standpoint, that's not accurate," said Greg Clevenger, resources staff officer for the Rogue River and Siskiyou national forests.
Wildfires do not burn in solid blocks. They skip around, gaining and losing intensity according to the terrain, wind and time of day. On steep ground and in the hot, windy hours of the late afternoon, they can roar across the landscape, consuming all in their path. At night, when it is cooler, or on a gentle slope, the flames grow calmer and less destructive.
The result is a quilt of burn patterns. Some areas that burned this summer were devastated, stripped of life, their soils cooked and hardened, wildlife gone. Others were less damaged; much, but not all, of the vegetation was killed, and the soils still can nourish new life.
Many pockets of forest were left unharmed as the flames skirted them. And some land received the kind of light burn that does a forest good, cleaning out dead and small growth and recycling nutrients.
In Sequoia National Forest east of Bakersfield, half of the 150,000 affected acres was lightly burned or not burned at all.
"Generally speaking, a large percent of that fire isn't that bad," Kaplan-Henry said. "The low burn was a good, healthy, beneficial thing, and even some of the moderate burn will be good." The hydrologist said that within two weeks of the blaze, which started in July in the Kern River Canyon with an escaped campfire, she started seeing new growth sprouting.
Once-brushy hills that, from a distance, appear to be blackened wastelands reveal scattered bursts of green shoots on closer inspection. Healthy pines loom against scorched underbrush like lines of green sprinkles on a burnt Christmas cookie.
Scorched pines are dropping their needles, providing a natural mulch that will help guard against the soil erosion that is one of the greatest concerns in a wildfire's aftermath.
In some places, foresters will provide added protection. Straw mulch will be dropped from helicopters or trucks, dead trees will be felled and positioned on the ground to slow runoff, allowing the water to seep into the ground. Road culverts are being repaired or enlarged.
Kaplan-Henry and her colleagues are hoping for steady rains that filter into the ground rather than pounding storms that rush over the bare ground, carrying off tons of soil.
"If we get a large storm event at the wrong time, before things have a chance to recover a bit, there's nothing we can do," she said.
The cumulative effects of this summer's fire and two earlier wildfires in the Sequoia forest are also altering the wildlife habitat.
Deer will benefit from forest openings created by the blaze, but two rare species -- the California spotted owl and the Pacific fisher -- lost some territory, said biologist Steven Anderson.
The fisher habitat in particular has been fragmented by the three fires, and that could further isolate the southern Sierra population of the weasel-like animal, Anderson said.
In the Oregon fire -- about 30,000 acres of which extend into California -- more than half the burn area is in relatively good shape.
"It goes in and cleans out a lot of fuel build-up," Clevenger, the national forest resources officer in Oregon, said of the low burn, which covered about 200,000 acres.
Even in the Arizona and Colorado wildfires, which destroyed hundreds of residences and forced mass evacuations, large portions of the burned areas escaped without great environmental damage.
About half of the land in the 138,000 - acre Hayman fire, the largest in Colorado history, was lightly burned or unburned, according to the Forest Service.
"It has thinned the smaller trees that would lead to overcrowded stand density," said Ken Kanaan, a soil scientist who is heading the fire's emergency rehabilitation effort. "[That] looks like just what we'd like to see if we had done a controlled burn in the area."
Kanaan said the extremely dry conditions that promoted the fire also may have helped slow soil damage. Dry soil doesn't conduct heat as well as moist soil, so the ground was less likely to get so hot that it broiled the microorganisms vital to healthy earth. "Those little critters aren't steamed in place," was how Kanaan put it.
About a third of the Hayman fire zone was severely burned, and reforestation will go slowly there.
"We're not looking at trees there for a very long time unless we go in and plant," Kanaan said. There simply aren't any live trees left in those areas to reseed the next generation.
Moreover, given the blaze's size and proximity to metropolitan Denver, Kanaan said, "There's no other way to describe it than devastating. It swallowed up private inholdings and residences. It's very devastating to the people who are in the burn area."
Jim Hibbetts, a Forest Service retiree who returned temporarily to help with restoration planning for the Arizona fire, vacationed as a child in the highlands that burned this summer.
"To me it was horrifying," he said. "I hate to see timber burn. So much of that is going to rot and fall down. The fire is so large it boggles your mind."
Two wildfires merged in late June, spreading over 463,000 acres of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. But again, not all is death and desolation.
There are areas where nothing is left but sand and rock. There are areas that were cleaned out in a way that will be good for wildlife.
"What people tend to forget is, it will grow back," Clevenger said. "I'm not saying all fires are good all the time. But we tend, as society, to sensationalize and over-dramatize the effect of fire. Fire is a natural process. It plays a role like the wind and the rain."
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