The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 136: Bad Fire, Good Fire, part 1

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Smoky the Bear says, only you can prevent wild fires. But sometimes you can't, and in some ways, that's not all bad. This week on The WildeBeat; part one of Bad Fire, Good Fire.

[Intro Music & SFX; 0:07.6 and under]

News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number one thirty six.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

[Intro Music: 0:04.5 ends]

STEVE: On Labor Day last year, I was on my way home from far northern California. I was still over sixty miles out, when I saw a huge pillar of dark smoke over the mountains near home. I imagined all sorts of potential disasters, but my home was OK, the smoke was farther south. The next morning, reporter Christie Smith from our local TV station, KNTV eleven in San Jose, told more of the story.

CHRISTIE SMITH: ...Fire personnel from as far away as Shasta and Siskiyou County have been called in to help fight the Lick fire at Henry Coe State Park. Now this fire broke out yesterday afternoon and it's been nearly unstoppable... At least ten cabins, campers, and rangers were all evacuated... There's steep terrain with very limited access, and the fire is moving very fast, racing up the hills to the ridge line and then back down. There are about twelve hundred fire personnel... They're also using six air tankers including a huge D-C ten that can drop thousands of gallons of fire retardant. Also four helicopters... We should also note that two fire fighters suffered minor injuries. At this point, the cause of this fire is still unknown.

STEVE: Henry Coe State Park contains my closest protected wilderness area. It's one of my favorite backcountry destinations in the winter and spring. I was pretty upset about the fire. But this was neither the worst nor the biggest fire in California last year.

KATHLEEN GOOD: The Zaca Fire started on July fourth, on private land outside the national forest, and burned for about two months. It was declared contained on September second.

STEVE: Kathleen Good is the public affairs officer for the Los Padres National Forest.

KATHLEEN GOOD: It burned a total of two hundred forty thousand, two hundred and seven acres, of which, about two hundred and twenty eight thousand were on national forest land. The rest was private. The fire was almost entirely within Santa Barbara County, just a southern-most area was in Ventura County to the south. The suppression costs made it one of the most expensive fires... in national history. And it was about a hundred and twenty two million dollars.

STEVE: And, in particular, tell me about the wilderness areas that were hit in that fire.

KATHLEEN GOOD: The Zaca Fire burned largely in the San Rafael and Dick Smith Wildernesses. It was almost entirely a wilderness fire. It did a lot of damage, if you will, to the backcountry in that the trail system ...has suffered very severe damage. We have probably a hundred and sixty seven miles of trails in those two wilderness areas that have sustained significant impacts as a result of the fire.

STEVE: So how denuded is this area, I mean, is it a bunch of scorched trees, is it a charcoal stick forest, or is it a moonscape?

KATHLEEN GOOD: When you look out over the Zaca Fire area, it does look like a moonscape. The area affected by the Zaca Fire has been closed to public entry since last July. We just reopened it in early April, and when people began to go back into the backcountry they were just in awe of what they were seeing. Just miles and miles of wide-open space with no vegetation in site. We're beginning to see and find old trails and old roads and things that haven't been seen for decades, even up to a hundred years are reappearing. The problem with all that vegetation going away, is that there was nothing to hold the soil in place, so there was a lot of erosion over the winter time. We did have periods of heavy rain. We also had some very heavy snow fall during February, and that added to ...the damage out there.

STEVE: I have to say, that sounded pretty awful. I was afraid that that's what happened to Henry Coe State Park. So I made arrangements to take a guided tour of the burned areas with headquarters ranger John Verhoeven.

JOHN VERHOEVEN: We're sitting up on Blue Ridge, we're looking out east. If we were able to we could actually see the Sierras today. Which would be about two hundred miles east of where we are. So we're in the Hamilton Range, which is a coast mountain range on the west side of the Central Valley of California.

JOHN VERHOEVEN: The fire was started by an illegal trash fire on private property adjacent to the park, just north of where we are now, about three miles. And it quickly consumed approximately seven thousand acres that first day, first twenty four hour period, and spread to the total acreage which was... just over forty seven thousand acres. Forty thousand of which was within Henry Coe State Park.

STEVE: We're close to where the fire started, what effect did did the fire have right at this spot?

JOHN VERHOEVEN: We're actually sitting right at the fire line... And if you look down this slope, you can actually see more and more intense burning of the area. And the evidence is, oak trees, for example, that are here, a lot of them burned and were damaged enough to where they either died ...or part of the trees died and they won't drop their leaves... Also as you look some of the pine trees, which most are gray pines or ponderosa, can see them scorched all the way to the top of the crown. So whenever you see fire that's burned the crown of a tree, that's a level that's ... high intensity.

STEVE: One traditionally fights a fire with water, but this is the driest time of the year, and an awful lot of your water sources were dry by September. How did they fight that fire, then?

JOHN VERHOEVEN: The basic techniques that they use are basically, how do you reduce fuel. So, for example, they would bulldoze a road to improve it, to make it a wider fire line. They would have crews come in and trim trees. This is all before the fire gets to that location, and then they would burn the grass on the side that they want to make a fire break. So they were literally fighting fire with

STEVE: This area doesn't actually look too bad, near the source of the fire. I see green leaves on some of the trees, fresh grass growing back, and the dead and burned trees that are here look like they might just be trees that died by some other natural cause.

[SFX: hiking]

STEVE: We moved-on to another area where the vegetation and terrain contributed to a very different result.

[SFX: fade out hiking]

STEVE: So now we've stopped at a place a little further down Blue Ridge that I would call the black stick forest. What are we looking at here?

JOHN VERHOEVEN: Most of it looks like it used to be manzanita, and it burned ...quite intense. There's a couple spots over here on the left that are maybe the highest intensity burn that you'll see in the park. This is referred to as a moonscape, that's a common term, and it's just several ridges along the hill that are all just skeletons of trees and this is an area that crown fires did occur, so there's trees interspersed with some of the manzanita, completely burned.

[SFX: hiking]

STEVE: So we're walking here down into the stick forest a little more, and I see kind of a little more sterilized area, it's kind of long and skinny, and you said this was a tree?

[SFX: fade out hiking]

JOHN VERHOEVEN: Correct. It might have been a ponderosa pine or an oak tree. By the fact that it's so straight it probably was a ponderosa. This ...entire tree was reduced to ash and a few chunks of charcoal that you can still see. And the reason you know it's a tree, there's usually a part where the roots used to be. That will still be a little bit of a hole in the ground.

STEVE: Luckily, most of the park wasn't burned quite this bad. But some of my favorite campsites, as well as some favorite shady spots along the trails, weren't going to be the same for a long time.

JOHN VERHOEVEN: The fire regulations when someone comes to visit, if they're backpacking, we don't allow them to have fires or collect wood in the park.

STEVE: "Minimize Campfire Impacts," is one of the seven Leave No Trace principles. Ben Lawhon, education director for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, explains this principle.

BEN LAWHON: We let folks know that campfires can cause lasting impacts to the backcountry. We encourage the use of lightweight cooking stoves, or candle lanterns, or headlamps for light, in lieu of fires. But where fires are permitted and safe, we encourage folks to use established fire rings, to keep fires small, and to burn all wood to coals and ash, and to make sure that the fire's out before leaving the area.

STEVE: These wild fires provide an opportunity for scientists to study how the ecosystems respond to fire. Next time, we'll hear from them about what they found.

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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. If we helped you get into the wilderness, could you help us do the same for others? Just click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number one thirty six. Thank you for listening.

[Closing Music: ends.]

Next time -- part two of Bad Fire, Good Fire.

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