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Eight Years After a Terrifying Fire, This Forest is Just Fine

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Eight years after the Butler Fire | Photo: Chris Clarke/KCET

Following a Prius up a dirt forest road, I daydream a bit behind the wheel. It's a pretty place: black oaks starting to show a little fall color, tall willows fringing the backs of Grout Creek, sun-warmed granite boulders showing between the trees. Scrub jays dart noisily between the trees as I pass, flashes of blue glinting off their wing feathers.

Just as I'm thinking I need to bring my significant other here with a tent, the dog, and a few days' worth of food and water, the Prius stops unexpectedly in the road before me. After a pause, its driver -- ecologist Chad Hanson -- gets out of the car and lopes the forty yards back toward me. We're caravanning from the scene of this summer's Lake Fire, and I wonder briefly if he left something back at our last parking spot.

Hanson reaches my car and smiles through the window. "I just though you'd want to know," he says. "For the last half mile we've been in the low-intensity burn area for the Butler Fire." He waves with the back of his right hand at the verdant foliage all around us.

Sparked by a lightning storm on Labor Day Weekend 2007, the Butler Fire was thought extinguished after it had burned 85 acres. But it wasn't. It smouldered for nearly two weeks, then rekindled, and burned another 22 square miles of the San Bernardino Mountains near Fawnskin.

While it was live, the Butler Fire was the highest-priority wildfire then burning in the Western United States. The fire forced closure of Route 18 north of Big Bear Lake, and about 500 people were evacuated from Fawnskin, as well as the remote hamlet of Green Valley. During the week of September 14-21, more than 2,000 firefighters worked to keep the Butler Fire from overtaking Fawnskin. They were lucky in more ways than one. The fire was just half a mile from town for several days, but no homes were lost. A few campground outbuildings were the only structural casualties. Fire crews didn't rack up any severe injuries, a remarkable bit of news considering the Butler Fire campaign included a plane crash (the pilot walked away) and a Forest Service vehicle rolling down a 400-foot cliff with a seven-person helitack crew inside.

Grateful residents and local businesses showered firefighters with free meals, haircuts, massages and chiropractic adjustments. On September 18 a local radio station alerted neighbors that fire crews had no more storage capacity for donated cookies.

The Butler Fire, in other words, was the kind of anticlimax everyone hopes for in a forest fire. Now, a half mile west of Fawnskin where the fire advanced, made everyone nervous, and then retreated, the mountain forest is beautiful. It's lush, and green, with the song of birds and a ridiculous wealth of butterflies.

As I follow Hanson past one bend in the road and then another, we emerge from the riparian forest along Grout Creek and into a sparser, more open landscape of granite and Jeffrey pine. Hanson, founder and staff ecologist of Earth Island Institute's John Muir Project, is giving me a tour of what the fire wonks call "high-intensity" burn areas in the San Bernardino Mountains. We've come into a part of the Butler Fire that burned at high intensity during that week eight years ago. There are a lot of dead trees. Some are visibly charred, others show no obvious cause of death.

But even in this high intensity burn area, the Butler Fire didn't kill all the trees. Something between 20 and 30 percent of the Jeffrey pines here survived the fire. Freed from competition for sunlight and water, fertilized abundantly by ash from the fire, they're looking pretty happy.

Or perhaps I should say 20 or 30 percent of the big Jeffrey pines survived the fire. The vast majority of the pines here never saw the Butler Fire. Everywhere I look there are baby pines a foot tall, or two, definitely less than eight years old. There are hundreds of them on each slope. Perhaps thousands.

A young Jeffrey pine grows in the shadow of a snag burned by the 2007 Butler Fire | Photo: Chris Clarke/KCET


The very nature of fire and our relationship to it makes it hard not to think of wildfires as apocalyptic. That attitude certainly shows up in most reporting on the issue of fire. We literally fail to see the forest for the trees.

In Part One of this story, Hanson and I visited an aspen grove whose top growth was killed in the summer of 2015 by the Lake Fire, already regrowing abundantly on this day in early October. Aspens are more than just individual trees: they grow as giant interwoven masses of underground roots that occasionally push a tree up through the ground. The trees may live for a century, feeding the whole organism with the energy they capture from the sun, and then they die... but the aspen organism goes on.

It's not a bad metaphor for other forests. Jeffrey pines, for instance, can withstand forest fires: their thick bark provides some protection against fire and they tend to shed their lower limbs, which deprives fire of a route into the trees' canopy. Enough Jeffrey pines survive enough fires that foresters can use successive layers of fire scars on very old trees to calculate a history of fires in the area.

But even if each individual adult tree succumbs that doesn't mean the forest has been killed. Seedlings sprout, in bare mineral soil or otherwise. Killed trees provide habitat for animals, as well as a reservoir of nutrients to leach into the forest soil over decades. This Jeffrey pine forest, just eight years after the Butler Fire, is thriving and full of life, trees and shrubs busily turning atmospheric carbon dioxide into biomass, the remnants of a previous generation of trees sequestered in the granite soil as charcoal.

I begin to think, following Chad Hanson up a steep hill, that I've been wrong to think about forests like this as "recovering" from fire. Perhaps fire is just one part of a natural, little-understood cycle, one phase in the life cycle of California mountain forests.

Imagine you live in an ecosystem that meets most of your needs. Sometimes you might not have quite enough food, and sometimes someone else tries to eat you, but overall there's enough water, sunlight, and nutrients to go around.

And then, as you reach the later part of a long life spent enjoying the fruits of your ecosystem, disaster strikes. An unimaginable drought dries up everything you know. All your relatives and neighbors die at once, an epic mass mortality, and as your last seconds of life slip away from you it seems that this must certainly be the end of the world.

It's just another late summer day in one of California's vernal pools, in other words, as imagined from the perspective of a native fairy shrimp dying in late summer. Come the next rain, the shrimp's progeny will emerge from their buried eggs and it will all start over again. Cycles of seeming destruction are everywhere in nature: annual freezes and droughts, the 500-year cold snaps that define the northern ranges of tree species, the twice-daily inundation and drought suffered by coastal tidepools.

For the most part people accept that these cycles happen, and that intervening in them is foolhardy. A campaign to save the fairy shrimp by irrigating vernal pools through the fall probably wouldn't be taken too seriously. We understand that wildlife can handle these cycles, that wildlife may need these cycles, and that intervening in these cycles will likely backfire in a cascade of unintended consequences.

But fire, for some reason, is an exception. We spend millions of dollars cutting down beetle-killed trees. We spend more in post-fire, so-called "salvage" logging, which usually removes trees that have survived the fire. We douse recently-burned mountainsides with herbicides to kill the shrubs that have grown back. We send in machinery to grind up those shrubs to give new trees a chance to grow. We plant trees. We take all of this as necessary, tasks that must be performed in order for the forest to recover from the fires we fight. It would seem a miracle that California's forests were able to survive all those millennia before the foresters got here to help.

The U.S. Forest Service has estimated that Jeffrey pine forests in the San Bernardino Mountains caught fire about every 14 years or so before the beginning of the 20th Century, when our bad habit of preventing and extinguishing fires changed things. You
would think the forests had some way of coping without the herbicides and shrub shredders.

Chad Hanson documents regrowth in a high-intensity burn area of the Butler Fire | Photo: Chris Clarke/KCET


As I follow Hanson I find myself regretting my choice of hiking gear. Specifically, the cargo shorts I put on this morning, a warm-weather choice that made sense at 2,600 feet above sea level at my home in the Mojave Desert. It's not the cooler weather here at 7,200 feet that's made me rethink my sartorial decisions: it's the vegetation.

Not all the vegetation, mind. There are black oaks regrown post-fire, most of them likely planted by jays. There are manzanitas here and there, and willows on the banks of a tributary to Grout Creek, and about a dozen species of herbaceous plants taking advantage of a bit of late summer rain.

As we climb a steep hill on the south bank of Grout Creek, it's the local ground cover that wreaks havoc with my bare legs, scratching welts that will itch for days. It's Ceanothus cordulatus, a.k.a. whitethorn, a native shrub that germinates profusely after high-elevation fires. It fixes nitrogen, making the inert atmospheric form of that element available as a nutrient for other living things. It stabilizes the soil, each individual plant growing up to four feet tall and eight wide. Its profuse flowering and seed set provide food for insects, birds, and small mammals.

And the forestry profession hates it. Or at least the shrub has its devoted detractors.

It's hard to find a better explanation of why some forestry types don't like whitethorn -- and other fast-growing shrubs that germinate after fires -- than this 2014 blog post by the Environmental Defense Fund's Eric Holst, in which Holst explains his support for post-fire logging on the site of the 2013 Rim Fire near Yosemite:

Restoration will require active shrub control to promote seedling survival of conifers, particularly pines. The Sierra has experienced a troubling decline in populations of pine species because their seeds do not germinate in the shade. Dense shrub cover and small thickets of fir trees further exacerbates the decline of these pine species, which are incredibly valuable for Sierra wildlife. In this rare case "nature" makes it much harder for tree populations in areas impacted by the Rim Fire to rebound.

"Standard practice after forest fires would involve getting rid of this whitethorn," Hanson explains. "Spraying herbicide from planes is one method. Or bringing machinery in to grind up the shrub cover. Then they'd come in and plant Jeffrey pine seedlings."

"Nine tenths of which would die," I venture.

"Yes. And in the meantime..." Hanson trails off as he walks to a nearby stand of whitethorn, gesturing at the center. A healthy looking Jeffrey pine a foot or so tall has emerged from the beneath.

Jeffrey pine emerging from whitethorn | Photo: Chris Clarke / KCET


I start to feel more grateful for my choice of outfit: the scratches on my legs as we hike give me a visceral understanding of the process by which whitethorn actually protects young pine seedlings. Out in the bare mineral soil that the Forest Service descriptions claim Jeffrey pines prefer, the young trees are vulnerable to every passing rabbit. But it would take a hungry rabbit indeed to stick its face into this scratchy whitethorn on the off chance that a Jeffrey pine might be growing there.

Desert ecologists are familiar enough with this phenomenon that there's a plain-English name for it: the whitethorn acts as a "nurse plant" by providing shelter from herbivores. There are other benefits to germinating beneath a canopy of whitethorn: protection from the sun and wind, slightly increased moisture, and nutrients from the shrub's leaf litter being examples.

We pass one good-sized whitethorn after another as we climb, most of them with at least one Jeffrey pine seedling emerging from their canopies. There are perhaps ten times as many seedlings as there are snags, a good sign for the forest sustaining itself. I imagine these seedlings grown older in the charcoal of their parents, the snags killed in September 2007 still providing habitat in the forest of September 2157.

I notice an unusual feeling, one that I almost don't recognize. It's a feeling I've grown unfamiliar with over decades as an environmental journalist. It's the feeling that maybe -- just maybe -- we don't need to worry that much about ecological catastrophe from forest fires. Maybe, if we just leave them alone, the forests will be all right on their own.

Exuberant shrub growth on a north-facing slope. There are lots of Jeffrey pines here. | Photo: Chris Clarke/KCET


That's a hard notion for an intervention-prone forestry establishment to swallow, as witness the deployment of firefighters during this summer's Rough Fire to protect groves of ancient giant sequoias from the fire. If there is a tree species more invulnerable to fire than a mature giant sequoia, I do not know it: its thick, nearly fire-proof bark protects the "Big Tree's" vascular tissue from even the hottest fires, and flames 150 feet tall are still a hundred feet below the crowns of a mature tree. If anything, the Rough Fire, if left to rage through sequoia groves, might have cleared the ground for new giant sequoia seedlings to grow in the coming decades, helping ensure the groves have a chance to persist for another few millennia.

But our cultural refusal to see fire as one stage in an ancient ecological process held sway there, as it usually does. It's as if we think forests are unhealthy unless they're composed of uniform, more or less even-aged trees in perfect health. That's understandable: we like trees, and we identify with them. But there's more to a forest ecosystem than healthy trees.

The science is there, if we look for it. In October 2013, 250 ecological scientists signed an open letter opposing laws that would mandate increased "salvage logging" -- essentially, clearcuts of potentially healthy trees in burned forests -- that spelled out what we stand to lose if we continue to interfere with forests that have burned. The scientists wrote:

Though it may seem at first glance that a post-fire landscape is a catastrophe ecologically, numerous scientific studies tell us that even in patches where forest fires burned most intensely the resulting post-fire community is one of the most ecologically important and biodiverse habitat types in western conifer forests.

They continue:

We urge you to consider what the science is telling us: that post-fire habitats created by fire, including patches of severe fire, are ecological treasures rather than ecological catastrophes[.]

"Ecological treasures" created by wildfires.

There are scientists who find all of this wishful thinking. It would be a mistake to extrapolate too far from visits to the Butler and Lake fires, a few miles apart in the same mountain range, to the rest of the West. Climate and species composition vary throughout California's forests, and what holds in one range might not in another. And speaking of climate, there are persuasive arguments that all these processes may change in the next century or so as California gets hotter and drier. Our coverage of California wildfires will continue, and we'll take a look at many of these issues.

But as we head into a year of drought-stressed forest trees and increased fuel load from El Niño-watered grasses, the notion that fires might create ecological treasures is definitely something to keep in mind.

Maybe, just maybe, everything will be all right if we just let the forests do what they need to do.

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