NORTH FORK — After more than three years, work is wrapping up on a project to reforest thousands of acres scorched by 2014’s French Fire.
“The French Fire reforestation project ends but the work continues,” according to officials at the Yosemite Sequoia Resource Conservation and Development Council, which has guided the reforestation effort. The nonprofit organization, which serves Fresno, Madera, Mariposa and Tulare counties, is dedicated to natural resource conservation and economic development.
After the devastation caused by the French Fire, Yosemite Sequoia RC&DC embarked on an ambitious program to clear, reforest and restore the scarred forestland.
The French Fire happened during the summer of 2014. Sparked by an abandoned campfire, the raging inferno ultimately torched a total of 13,832 acres in the Sierra National Fores, including sections bordering the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway.
The 2014 fire provided “a stark reminder that one seemingly small lapse in judgement can have a catastrophic impact on the forest,” said Yosemite Sequoia Resource Conservation and Development Council’s Robert Hopkins.
“Fire disturbance is a natural forest process but climate change, human ignitions, and unnaturally dense forests have led to an increase in the frequency, size and severity of wildfires” Hopkins added in a press release issued last week. “In some areas, the forest was so severely burned that no trees survived. The need for post-fire reforestation is evident in these severely burned areas because without seeding trees nearby, natural recovery could be a very lengthy process.”
To promote forest regeneration, post-fire reforestation work has been underway on 3,000 acres of “high-severity burned” areas within the French Fire boundary, Hopkins added.
Work first began in 2017 on the Eastern Madera Wildfire Reforestation Project (EMWR Project). Over 100,000 mixed conifer seedlings — ponderosa pine, Jeffrey pine, blister-rust resistant sugar pine and incense cedar — were planted during this project.
“The seedlings, as well as surviving oaks and natural regeneration in low-severity burned areas, will contribute to a more resilient future forest,” Hopkins stated. “As trees mature, they provide food and shelter for a variety of wildlife species, improve scenery and deliver social and economic benefits. Reforestation also accelerates the conversion of severely burned areas to a forest habitat which may be beneficial for California spotted owls and Pacific fisher in the future.”
Post-fire reforestation has its challenges. Site preparation, which includes felling, pile burning and removal of burned trees, is hazardous work, especially as time goes on and the dead trees become rotten and brittle.
During the EMWR Project, work was slowed due to the hazard conditions, which increased costs, Hopkins said. The steep rugged terrain and inclement weather also contributed to delays and difficulty in completing reforestation goals.
Despite the numerous challenges, the EMWR Project was completed on time in the fall of 2019. Still, post-fire reforestation of the French Fire area continues.
The Madera Southern Sierra All Lands Recovery and Restoration Project (Madera SSARR Project) aims to reforest 1,250 acres of severely burned areas of the French Fire. That project, along with additional grants and federal funding, will help support the completion of planned reforestation treatments.
“With future funding, up to 1 million seedlings are expected to be planted within the French Fire boundary,” said Hopkins.
Funding for this project was provided by the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency, under the Water Quality, Supply and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014 (Proposition 1) grant cycle and in support of the Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program.
Hopkins said seedling costs in 2018 and 2019 were covered by the Arbor Day Foundation.