Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Will major fires like Rim spark changes in forest management practices?

When the Rim fire burned more than 400 square miles of Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park land last year, it became immediately obvious that the forest’s recovery will take decades and the fire’s impacts will be long-lasting.

Folks at the Sierra Pacific sawmill near Sonora got a not-so-subtle reminder of that last month when a deck of logs salvaged and trucked in from the company’s plantation that burned in the Rim fire suddenly caught fire again at the mill.

“A whole deck of cedar,” Tim Tate, Sierra Pacific’s division manager, said. It’s quite possible, he said, that embers still burning inside one of the logs ignited the entire pile. Why? Because a few days before the deck burned, a sawyer in the mill cut into one of the logs.

“It was still smoking,” Tate said.

Those incidents occurred in July, nearly 11 months after the Rim fire began on Aug. 17, 2013 – one week shy of a year ago today. Keith Emerald, a 32-year-old Columbia man who had been hunting deer in the area the day it started has been indicted on charges of setting the fire and will appear in federal court at some point.

But this isn’t about who started the blaze. This is about the recovery of the private and national forest lands destroyed by the Rim fire. It is about fires past, present and future as climate change, drought and forest management practices combine to create the perfect conditions for mega events.

Decades of fire suppression paired with decades of declining timber harvesting on public lands simply hasn’t worked. The forests are far more dense than they were more than a century ago. Fuel in the form of brush and dead wood on the forest floor becomes pure kindling. When coupled with drought, it’s a formula for exactly what we’re seeing throughout the West: Huge fire after huge fire.

Many of the 7,000-plus firefighters came directly from other major fires throughout the Western states to battle the Rim fire, which cost taxpayers $127 million to extinguish.

“Every rural county feels like it will be home to the next Rim fire,” Tuolumne County Supervisor Sherri Brennan said.

On Friday, the Sierra Nevada and Sierra Foothill conservancies and Calforests, a timber industry group, organized a tour of the Rim fire area. They assembled a panel that included representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, timber industries, Brennan, UC Merced scientist Phil Saksa and Patrick Koepele, who is the executive director of the Tuolumne River Trust, an environmental organization.

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A majority of the panelists believe national forests and the U.S. Forest Service are under the Department of Agriculture for a reason: that forests are resources to be managed for the benefit of the people. Conversely, the National Park system is under the Department of Interior to be preserved and protected, which is why firefighting, recovery practices and jurisdiction changed where the Rim fire burned its way into the park.

They might not agree on everything, but they steadfastly feel forest management practices need to change in order to prevent future catastrophic events like the Rim fire and to protect the watersheds. And there is no better time to push an agenda or for rules changes than right after the forest burned to smithereens and took the local economy down with it.

“The Groveland corridor has suffered immensely and has been slow in coming back,” Brennan said. “It is one of the gateways to Yosemite.”

Ranchers who graze their animals in the forests took a huge hit from the fire and the Forest Service refused to allow some to bring their animals into the burn area this year.

“It’s heavily impacted the permittees in huge numbers,” she said.

Much of the timber salvaged from the Rim fire area has come from privately owned lands surrounded by the national forest. A federal judge will review an environmental report Aug. 22 that could speed up salvage on public lands – if the document isn’t challenged in court by some environmental groups, which usually happens. Those in the timber industry, including Sierra Pacific’s Tate, Paul Violett of Calforests and Mike Albrecht of Sierra Resource Management, say the burned trees generally must be salvaged within two years to have any value.

“From the logging communities, it has been an outstanding effort by the timber industry,” Albrecht said. The 200 loads of logs emerging from the forest each day, he said, “are enough to build 50 homes a day.”

Sierra Pacific owns about 16,000 acres within the Rim fire perimeter, Tate said. “About 9,000 of it got scorched,” he said.

“These large fires are very disruptive events to those of us in the timber management business,” Tate said. “We’ve had to shut down all our green (forest-thinning) operations and bring everybody over to (salvage). It all changed very suddenly.”

Ironically, the drought contributing to the bone-dry, fire-friendly conditions so prevalent throughout the state actually aided the Rim fire area in one aspect. A normal rainfall year, let alone a strong one, would have triggered major erosion and mudslides, the sediment of which would have ended up in the reservoirs.

“The low-water year was not the worst thing to happen (for the burn area),” said Saksa, of UC Merced’s Sierra Nevada Research Institute. “It gave the area an opportunity to restabilize.”

The other good news is that the fire has brought together representatives of environmental groups, the timber industry, ag, tourism, economic development and government under the banner of Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions.

“We don’t agree on everything,” Albrecht said. “We do agree that what we have done isn’t working.”

A year later, 400-plus acres of charred landscape offers a jaw-dropping reminder.

There are also embers still smoldering here and there, too, as the folks at Sierra Pacific can attest.

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