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Forests Show Resilience as Fires Pass

Despite grim evaluations during summer, officials say large swaths only lightly burned. Some areas are the better for a needed cleaning.

October 27, 2002|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

KERNVILLE, Calif. — As flames leaped across the West this summer, so did the hyperbole. If fires weren't devastating, they were horrific or catastrophic. Colorado's governor at one point declared his state ablaze. Television sets blared the peril to California's groves of giant sequoias.

In August, President Bush tramped through the charred landscape of a fire that had raged across southern Oregon and Northern California and declared the sight a "crying shame."

But now that the smoke has cleared, the scene is not so grim. In the path of each of the major wildfires that captured national attention this year, large swaths of land emerged only lightly burned -- often better off for a much needed forest cleaning.

In Sequoia National Forest, where a fire burned for six weeks and threatened some of the most majestic trees on Earth, only about 8% of the 150,000 acres that burned was severely damaged, according to an analysis by the U.S. Forest Service.

While the most heavily burned timberland will take generations to fully heal, elsewhere new life is already poking through blackened earth. Bouquets of fresh green sprouts are rising from charred stumps.

"People go out there and the first response is, 'Oh, my God, it's horrible,' " said Terry Kaplan-Henry, a hydrologist who is leading emergency recovery work in the Sequoia forest. "It's coming back already. In three years, it probably will look great."

Roughly 6.7 million acres of drought-stressed wild lands burned this year in the continental United States and Alaska, less than in 2000 but enough to make it one of the five worst fire seasons in the last 40 years, according to statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho.

More land may yet burn in places like Southern California, where the fire season will not end until the arrival of soaking rains.

Along with their size, the wildfires' locations drew attention. Big burns in Colorado licked the edges of Denver's suburbs, and tens of thousands of residents were evacuated from the edges of forests in Arizona. In California, flames crept within a mile of sequoias.

The television images of forest infernos spilled onto the political landscape as some Western lawmakers complained that the woods had grown into highly flammable thickets because of environmental regulations.

At the site of a 500,000-acre fire in southern Oregon, Bush lamented the consequences of "bad forest policy," and called for an emergency program to increase logging and thinning in federal forests.

Backed by the White House, legislation that would curtail legal challenges to future logging is now pending in Congress.

As it turns out, the Oregon blaze was not the best example of a forest in smoky ruin. Examining the severity of the Siskiyou National Forest fire -- pockets of which are still smoldering -- federal scientists found that roughly 60% of the acreage had been burned relatively lightly or escaped unburned.

"The media in general tends to use those sensationalizing words like 'devastating,' and many times from an ecosystem standpoint, that's not accurate," said Greg Clevenger, resources staff officer for the Rogue River and Siskiyou national forests.

Wildfires do not burn in solid blocks. They skip around, gaining and losing intensity according to the terrain, wind and time of day. On steep ground and in the hot, windy hours of the late afternoon, they can roar across the landscape, consuming all in their path. At night, when it is cooler, or on a gentle slope, the flames grow calmer and less destructive.

The result is a quilt of burn patterns. Some areas that burned this summer were devastated, stripped of life, their soils cooked and hardened, wildlife gone. Others were less damaged; much, but not all, of the vegetation was killed, and the soils still can nourish new life.

Many pockets of forest were left unharmed as the flames skirted them. And some land received the kind of light burn that does a forest good, cleaning out dead and small growth and recycling nutrients.

In Sequoia National Forest east of Bakersfield, half of the 150,000 affected acres was lightly burned or not burned at all.

"Generally speaking, a large percent of that fire isn't that bad," Kaplan-Henry said. "The low burn was a good, healthy, beneficial thing, and even some of the moderate burn will be good." The hydrologist said that within two weeks of the blaze, which started in July in the Kern River Canyon with an escaped campfire, she started seeing new growth sprouting.

Once-brushy hills that, from a distance, appear to be blackened wastelands reveal scattered bursts of green shoots on closer inspection. Healthy pines loom against scorched underbrush like lines of green sprinkles on a burnt Christmas cookie.

Scorched pines are dropping their needles, providing a natural mulch that will help guard against the soil erosion that is one of the greatest concerns in a wildfire's aftermath.

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