LAKE MOUNTAIN, Calif. — Klamath National Forest Supervisor Robert L. Rice sadly surveyed the stark white slopes of this 6,903-foot Northern California peak.
The white all around him was not snow. It was ash.
Ash is about all that is left of a healthy stand of 15- to 20-year-old fir and cedar trees that crowned the higher reaches of this mountain until a few weeks ago.
One of the devastating fires that have consumed 650,000 acres of national forest in California since Aug. 30 destroyed the tree farm on Lake Mountain.
For Rice, 56, veteran forester, September was a nightmare.
More than a third of all the national forest land that burned in California the past five weeks--250,000 acres--is in the forest he manages, the Klamath National Forest just south of the Oregon border.
Rice has worked in eight national forests during his 30 years with the U.S. Forest Service, four in California, three in Idaho, and one in Minnesota. He has been supervisor of the Klamath National Forest for six years. He has fought hundreds of forest fires in his career.
"I have never seen fires of this magnitude," Rice said. "The rehabilitation and recovery is going to be a tremendous challenge." He said it has cost $77 million just to fight the Klamath fires and the dollar loss to natural resources is still unknown.
"Take this mountain, for example," said the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder. "Crews will be here within a few days seeding these slopes, spreading straw mulch, doing everything possible to protect the soil, to stop the erosion, to keep the mountain in place before winter rains come.
"Scorched logs will be crisscrossed up and down Lake Mountain to hold back the soil. In February and March we will replant the slopes with young trees. And this is just one mountain. We've got a whole forest to save with mountains like this all over the place. It's going to be a long winter. . . . "
Rice's nightmare began Aug. 30 when 187 lightning fires occurred in the Klamath forest. Throughout September, 33 major fires burning in the forest at the same time were fought by as many as 8,530 firefighters.
All but two of the Klamath fires are contained. There are still more than 5,900 men and women fighting the fires and mopping up the charred areas. Three firefighters were killed, 25 seriously injured, and more than 500 treated for cuts, bruises and burns, mostly from falling rocks and trees in the forest that occupies nearly half of sparsely populated Siskiyou County.
The number of firefighters will gradually be reduced, with up to 1,000 remaining here until at least mid-November--providing no new outbreaks occur.
While the fires still burn and the mop-up continues along 490 miles of fire lines, assessment teams--wildlife biologists, recreation specialists, timber experts, soil scientists, hydrologists, road crews, archeologists and others--are out in the forest studying the extent of damage and destruction and determining what needs to be done.
More than 500,000 acres of Klamath National Forest remain closed to all but residents of the area, firefighters, forestry personnel and law enforcement officers. Many trails and campgrounds will remain closed until the rainy season begins and the fires are completely out, Rice said.
Trail to Be Rerouted
There are 1,900 miles of hiking trails in the forest. One 20-mile stretch of the Pacific Coast Trail, which extends from Mexico to Canada, will have to be rerouted because of fire damage.
Rice talked of the destruction to thousands of trees, including massive stands of oak and old-growth timber like Douglas fir, sugar pine, ponderosa pine, red fir, white fir and cedars 200 to 300 years old. Some areas of the forest had not burned for more than 200 years.
A crash program will get under way shortly to salvage as much of the burned and scorched trees as possible. Much of the timber is salvageable if harvested within a few months before insects infest the dead and dying trees.
As Rice drove along the forest in a four-wheel drive vehicle, a black bear darted across the dirt road. On sighting the bear, Rice said, "Damage and destruction to wildlife is of great concern, of course. The fires have dealt us a new hand as far as wildlife goes. We've got a new group of cards to work with.
"There will be a change in species diversity. In some cases nature's way of cleaning out old brush and grasses will be beneficial. Deer populations, for example, will be healthier because of it. Their numbers will increase. We're worried about our spotted owl habitat. We know that portions of 22 of the 130 spotted owl habitat areas have been affected by the fire." The spotted owl is on the threatened species list.
Rice said heavy smoke from the fires had disoriented wildlife. "I saw eight bald eagles on one tree, all obviously confused by the smoke." He said wildlife biologists will be assessing the fire's effect on the bald eagles and other wildlife in weeks to come.