The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat editions 136 & 137: Bad Fire, Good Fire

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 edition of The WildeBeat; 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 a combined version of programs one thirty six and one thirty seven.

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.

KATHLEEN GOOD: The ...trails down in the canyon bottoms did pretty well. The trails along the ridge tops did pretty well. But those that were hanging along by the skin of their teeth, mid-slope areas really took a hard hit, and there are miles and miles of trail that are just basically gone... We're just telling people to be extremely careful. Expect that there won't be trails where there used to be, and be prepared to go cross country. Where they can, stick to ridge tops because it's easier to navigate, and also, make sure they know where they're going. Have good maps. Don't rely on trail signs because those are all gone.

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: Well, fighting a wild fire is different in the sense of a structure fire. 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 fire. Another term for it is called back fire. So they will actually light areas on fire after they enclose it in a controlled area, you know, where they've made a fire line, and then they light it on fire.

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: What I really wanted to know was what will happen to these areas? Will they ever be the same? I talked to Jon Keely. He's a research scientist for the United States Geologic Survey.

STEVE: How much of this area was destroyed?

JON KEELY: Well, when we think about wild fires in California landscapes, we generally don't think of them as destroyed... Most of these ecosystems are composed of both flora and fauna that's adapted to recovering after large, high-intensity fires. And these are fires that have been on our landscape for tens of millions of years if not longer, and so there's been very strong selection for species that can adapt to these conditions. So I would say we wouldn't think of them as having destroyed anything.

STEVE: I took a tour of areas burned by the Lick Fire with Winslow Briggs. He's director emeritus for the Carnagie Institute of Science on the Stanford University Campus.

WILSLOW BRIGGS: My initial reaction to the Coe Fire was, "this is just horrible!" As the smoke was coming up and all of those -- one's initial reactions are just deep, deep dismay. But on investigating what had happened and what is happening it's clear to me that we should be rejoicing that the fire went through. This is something that has been very beneficial... it'll be a beautiful place very shortly. Some areas are already restored, almost to their full, original condition, and I find this all an extremely exciting process to follow.

STEVE: We started our tour near where the fire started, on a ridge top covered with oaks and pines.

WILSLOW BRIGGS: The fire went through this area, relatively rapidly. As you can see, some of the trees are really pretty healthy. They're green. When that area first burned, the ground right in front of you was absolutely black. About three weeks later it had turned an orange-ish color, and how do you explain that? Hundreds and hundreds of gophers had tossed up the dirt and were feeding on roasted roots. And now you can see that the meadow underneath the forest is pretty well restored. In some of the groves of blue oaks, you can scarcely see any charring on the bases of the trunks... Some of them were more severely damaged. The leaves were browned and didn't come off, and some of them were torched, completely, where the fire crowned. But at least the blue oaks are remarkably resistant to fire, and I'm optimistic that a lot of them are going to make it through.

STEVE: Let's move on then to the next region of the park that we visited... And this area -- I mean, it looks like a charcoal stick forest.

WILSLOW BRIGGS: It does indeed look like a charcoal stick forest. And that's what we call chaparral. It's a mixture of manzanita, and a plant called chemise. Chemise's other name is grease wood,'s a good name for it, because it's filled with compounds that are highly inflammable... So that when it burns, that's what produces the firestorms where the flames go up a hundred feet, and where that fire has gone through and left ...the charcoal skeletons behind.

[Fade Winslow far under]

STEVE: I remembered John Keely saying that chemise could resprout from it roots, even if it was burned to the ground.

JON KEELY: And chemise almost never regenerates from seed, except after a fire, and that's because it'll produce seeds more or less on an annual basis, but those seeds are dormant and the lay in the soil and they depend on a cue from the fire that comes in the form of either heat or chemicals from the smoke trigger the germination, and then they, all of a sudden in one single pulse will recruit over a vast amounts of area, a whole new generation of chemise plants.

STEVE: So that brings us to the last location we got a look at in our tour of the Coe Fire, and that is an area of open meadow grassland on a well-drained hillside.

WILSLOW BRIGGS: Now this was a low intensity fire. It was probably backfired... And my hunch is that they torched it along there, and the fire didn't start out to be very hot.

STEVE: So we have this little patch here, you've marked off with orange tape... So you're obviously studying what's in this square, and want to come back and look at the same spot. Tell me ...about how your studying this.

WILSLOW BRIGGS: I think we have thirty five or thirty six plots now... But these are fifty centimeters on a side, and they're ten meters apart arbitrarily in a straight line... And we're photographing them and getting a count at each of the different plant species in these quadrats, over time. So we can compare what's there this year, early, this year late, next year early, next year late, five years from now early, five years from now late, to monitor what kinds of changes are going on. Our quadrats like this are actually in many different kinds of areas, from the most severely-burned chaparral, to the most gently-burned meadows... So we're trying to cover all of the major vegetation communities.

STEVE: There's hundreds of plants at least. Do you count every one?

WILSLOW BRIGGS: Well, we have to record somehow what's there... Sometimes we're forced to say, "gee, ...maybe there are thirty-plus." But, maybe next year there will only be ten-plus. And that's a change. Maybe that's significant. So we need to record them as closely as we can... to see what changes are occuring after the fire as things readjust and the plant communities return to a relatively stable state.

STEVE: There's no chance that this fire is going to, in the long term, cut back on the amount of poison oak we have to deal with as hikers, is there?

WILSLOW BRIGGS: Not a chance. You're talking about poison oak. Poison oak is one of those plants that has seeds that are induced to germinate by smoke. And at particular site that I'm personally responsible for, there are now hundreds and hundreds of poison oak seedlings coming up, and you'd have to describe this as ...a definite downer as a fire consequence.

WILSLOW BRIGGS: But by and large, fire is beneficial I think. That's my belief... It cleans out the understory, ...and it returns an enormous amount of nutrition and nutrients to the soil. And, you can see that in a flush of our spring wildflowers. They're not necessarily fire-followers, but boy, given s shot of good mineral fertilizer, boy they're off and running. And you've got a wonderful display.

STEVE: Kathleen Good of the Los Padres National Forest sees similar recovery in the wake of the Zaca Fire.

KATHLEEN GOOD: What we're seeing now, and we've only just seen a small portion of it... That the vegetation is starting to recover already, which is what we would expect after a fire of this nature. Some of the grasses are coming up and there's re-sprouting of the chaparral. This is all very normal in a chaparral -- fire-dependent chaparral environment. So the area is starting to recover. It will take probably three to four years for it to perform like a normal watershed would. But there are definite signs of recovery out there. We had a nice crop of wildflowers in many areas this year. There are also areas where there's nothing coming up, yet... But that will change too.

STEVE: Jon Keely points out that while many species are adapted to fire, it has to be the right amount of fire.

JON KEELY: Too much fire basically eliminates native species, replaces them with non-native species... For example, shrub lands in say central coast and northern part of the state, generally have a fire season that maybe only lasts four to six months. When you type-convert it to grasslands, you can increase that fire season to twelve months, and so by introducing these alien grasses you now have altered the fire regime. Greatly increased the chance of another fire occurring. And so the number one concern by resource managers ought to be, "How do we keep fire out of these systems that have just recently burned?"

STEVE: In these areas that we describe as black stick forests or moonscapes, what's your advice or your words of inspiration to people who want to go out and find beauty in what appears to be a scene of destruction?

JON KEELY: Well, one of the things that I think people need to keep in mind is this is a natural part of the ecosystem... Immediately after a fire these landscapes are charred, and they look rather desolate to most people. However, it is, in the first spring that people who visit these sites all of sudden realize there is this story of adaptation because these landscapes will recover very rapidly and those who are fortunate enough to visit these burned areas this spring were able to experience a phenomenon that most people never experience, and that is this amazing display of wildflowers that comes up after wild fires... And what you need to look for is the evidence ...for these species that are completing their life cycle, an appreciation for the fact that they're actually rejuvenating themselves following a fire.

STEVE: You can find links to more information about the places mentioned in these editions, the fires that affected them, and hear an extended version of both parts of this show, on our web site. WildeBeat members can download extended interviews with scientists Winslow Briggs and Jon Keely from our WildeBeat Insider web pages.

STEVE: We depend on you to help support our work. For a limited time, become a WildeBeat member and get a weekend's worth of meals from Alpine Aire foods, books from Wilderness Press, access to bonus audio content, and more, as thank you gifts.

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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, combined programs one thirty six and one thirty seven. Thank you for listening.

[Closing Music: ends.]

Next time -- lights.

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