Rim Fire, © Mike McMillan/USFS

California’s Rim Fire: Opportunities Rise from the Ashes

Last summer’s Rim Fire was one for the history books. The largest fire ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada, and the third-largest fire in California’s history, it burned more than 257,000 acres – or 402 square miles. A majority of the area engulfed by the fire is federal public lands managed by the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park. A wide variety of wildlife habitat was affected, including important areas for California spotted owl and northern goshawk and a significant swath of suitable Pacific fisher habitat that could be key to the species expanding its range north of Yosemite.

Silver State Hotshots, © Mike McMillan/USFS

Silver State Hotshots work on the Rim Fire ( © Mike McMillan/USFS)

This colossal wildfire was ignited on August 17th, 2013, by an abandoned campfire near the Clavey River, not far upstream from where it meets the Wild and Scenic Tuolumne River, about 20 miles east of Sonora, California. Conditions couldn’t have been much worse, with steep, rugged terrain, unstable weather conditions and the driest vegetation ever recorded in the area. The fire spread quickly, racing to the top of Jawbone Ridge in less than 10 minutes. The fire continued to grow exponentially for six straight days, burning more than 11,000 acres per day – including runs of 37,000 and 52,000 acres on two consecutive days – quickly dwarfing two other major wildfires burning simultaneously elsewhere in the Sierra. Firefighters did not declare the Rim Fire contained until mid-October, after spending $127 million on suppression efforts.

While the Rim Fire was disastrous for both people and wildlife, it’s important to remember that not all fire is bad. The Sierra Nevada’s plants and animals have evolved with fire playing a role in shaping the landscape for thousands of years. Many plants and animals have adapted to fire and some, like the giant sequoia, depend on fire as a critical component of their life cycle. In fact, a whole suite of plants and animals specialize in being the first to recolonize a site after disturbance. Contemporary fire science suggests that continued and increased applications of fire are required to achieve restoration objectives in the Sierra after more than a century of unsustainable logging practices and aggressive fire suppression. Indeed, with a large proportion of the Sierra Nevada either too steep or otherwise inaccessible to mechanized equipment for thinning overgrown forests, fire may be the only tool to remove the excessive vegetation that has grown up during the era of “Smokey the Bear.” Fortunately, there is a growing partnership of forest managers, air quality regulators, fire practitioners and conservation interests working together to reintroduce fire to restore the Sierra’s fire-dependent forests while also protecting lives and property.

After the Ashes Settled
Rim Fire damage, © Pamela Flick/Defenders

Rim Fire damage

Even before the Rim Fire was fully extinguished, restoration efforts began. Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) teams were on scene to begin work immediately to reduce further damage to the land. Vegetation loss exposes soil to erosion, increasing runoff and moving large quantities of sediment downstream, which can endanger wildlife and community water supplies. BAER teams worked to stabilize soil, control water, debris and sediment movement, and mitigate threats to safety, health and property.

After the area burned during the Rim Fire was initially stabilized, the U.S. Forest Service acted quickly to propose a “hazard tree” removal project. This is a standard, common sense post-fire practice, which will improve public safety across 7,630 acres of the Stanislaus National Forest within and adjacent to 148 miles of high use roads and other developed facilities. The final decision on that proposal is expected out in May of this year.

Logging truck, © Pamela Flick/Defenders

A logging truck transports timber from the Rim Fire area.

Unfortunately, with the good proposals come the bad. The Forest Service also proposed the Rim Fire Recovery Project, which, if adopted, could do more harm than good. The project does not limit potentially harmful activities that will take place within the burn perimeter. This means that within the burn area, officials could remove trees of all sizes including large trees important for cavity-nesting species like black-backed woodpecker. The project would permit the use of damaging mechanical equipment in sensitive Riparian Conservation Areas and in close proximity to streams and other special aquatic features, choking waterways with sediment. The proposal would also allow construction of new, permanent roads and entry into roadless areas, fragmenting wildlife habitat. All of these activities could have further negative impacts on wildlife and habitat already stressed by the fire.

Even more disturbing is an ill-conceived piece of federal legislation introduced by Congressman Tom McClintock (R-CA), whose district includes the burned area. Congressman McClintock’s extreme bill calls for immediate logging within the burned area, fully exempt from any environmental laws, public comment, or administrative or judicial review. The legislation ignores scientific evidence that post-fire logging impedes recovery and in fact increases fire risk, and would irreparably damage our public lands, including designated wilderness areas, critical wildlife habitat, clean drinking water and recreation. The Sacramento Bee wrote an excellent editorial earlier this year summarizing the issues surrounding the Rim Fire, entirely dismissing McClintock’s bill.

They say that hindsight is 20/20. One only needs to look back to the aftermath of the Stanislaus Complex Fire of 1987 to conclude that the old way of attempting post-fire restoration – so-called “salvage” logging followed by tree plantations and herbicide application – did not create a resilient and healthy forest ecosystem. But if we look at the Rim Fire’s less severe effects in Yosemite, where there is a managed fire program that allows burning in areas away from developed facilities, we see that other fire management strategies – those that welcome fire back to the land – can result in a healthy and thriving forest. We must learn from our past missteps and be adaptive in our approach to ecosystem restoration. The considerable extent of the Rim Fire will provide ample opportunities for research and shared learning, allowing for a variety of treatments and an adaptive management approach. We can do better. We must do better.

A Different Approach

In 2012, several organizations, including Defenders of Wildlife and our partner Sierra Forest Legacy (SFL), released National Forests in the Sierra Nevada: A Conservation Strategy. This comprehensive conservation strategy has a chapter dedicated entirely to the idea of restoring fire as an ecological process. One of the strategy’s key recommendations is to allocate a large percentage of funds to treatments that will increase forest health and resilience while enhancing wildlife habitat through managed fire. The document also cautions that post-fire salvage logging, impairs ecosystem function and reduces ecological resilience and genetic variability in forests.

Fisher, © Washington State

Fishers are just one of several species that stand to benefit from seeing the area impacted by the Rim Fire fully recovered.

Defenders will continue our engagement on Rim Fire restoration as an important component of our work within the Sierra Nevada. We have participated in technical workshops to evaluate and prioritize landscape-level restoration efforts. Along with 10 partner organizations working on Sierra Nevada forest conservation issues, we submitted substantive comments on the Forest Service’s proposed Rim Fire Recovery Project in which we stated that “we do not oppose the removal of burned trees that are hazards to human safety and infrastructure; however, we do oppose post-fire logging for purely economic purposes given the high cost to ecological integrity.”

At the larger level, Defenders will continue working to restore the positive role of fire in the Sierra through our leadership on the Southern Sierra Prescribed Fire Council and by building on our years of participation in the Dinkey Landscape Restoration Project on the Sierra National Forest. Work on the Dinkey project includes ramping up forest restoration efforts by conducting more controlled burns through the newly-formed Prescribed Fire Working Group. This work will go a long way to improving habitat for a wide variety of forest-dwelling wildlife, from yellow-legged frogs to Pacific fisher. We will also carry on with our work on the three concurrent forest plan revisions in the southern Sierra to advocate returning fire to forest ecosystems for increased adaptive capacity, resiliency and biodiversity of the Sierra Nevada. The more we are able to increase the pace and scale of ecosystem restoration in Sierra forests, including restoring the critical role of fire as a key disturbance process, the less likely we will see future uncharacteristic wildfires like last summer’s Rim Fire.

Pamela Flick, California Representative