September 4, 2013

Rim Fire makes history, alters ecosystem

Experts say the blaze will change the forest for at least a generation and possibly for much longer.

By MARK GROSSI The Fresno Bee

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

The Rim Fire, shown in a photo from the U.S. Fire Service, burns near Yosemite National Park. Scientists predict it will burn until autumn storms arrive.

The Associated Press

Next year, kayakers will see the devastation as they glide down the Tuolumne, said Safford. He said scientists won't know the extent of the damage until they investigate after the smoke clears, but there is little doubt about what they will find.

"The Tuolumne River canyon will be fundamentally different over the next 50 years," Safford said.

The fire recovery will be dominated by shrub species, such as chaparral, which is highly flammable, he said. More chaparral also will be apparent in Yosemite where the fire has burned more than 40,000 acres.

Will the trees come back at some point? They should eventually return, said Yosemite-area scientist Jan van Wagtendonk, research forester emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey's Western Ecological Center.

"But if another fire burns through, it goes right back to chaparral," he said. "That has happened already in some places."

No one knows for sure what will happen after the Rim fire and throughout the Sierra. Fire recovery is sometimes debated passionately among the experts. People on social media like to talk about it, too.

During the Rim fire, one conversation on Twitter featured the strong recovery of Yellowstone National Park and surrounding areas from the 1.2 million-acre fire in 1988. If Yellowstone recovered, why wouldn't the Stanislaus National Forest?

Safford said it is a mistake to compare the Stanislaus in the Sierra Nevada to Yellowstone in the Rocky Mountains. Yellowstone's lodgepole pine forest developed in much wetter conditions -- there are storms year-round, he said.

FIRES 'THE SIZE OF RHODE ISLAND'

During droughts in the Rockies, it is natural to have fires "the size of Rhode Island" every 100 to 200 years, he said. In fact, the lodgepole pine cones don't open and spread their seeds until a large, destructive fire wipes out trees.

But on the whole, experts say, the Sierra is far less open and far more prone to larger, hotter fires these days.

Safford said, "Add up the changes happening here. It looks like you don't get some forests back."

 

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