HUNTINGTON LAKE – As the Aspen Fire continues to chew through the forest in the High Sierra District of the Sierra National Forest, it leaves in its wake the seeds of renewal.
Though many may feel that this fire is a tragedy, and that nature is being destroyed and creatures are perishing, it is actually the regeneration of life.
Fire has always been an essential part of the natural cycle of life in the forest, but that cycle has been distorted by the practice of stopping fires as quickly as possible.
“The forests of the western United States have developed through centuries of wildland fire, prior to European settlement and the beginning of fire suppression,” says Carolyn Ballard, Fire Management Officer on the High Sierra Ranger District.
“The suppression of fire has changed the landscape, so that now forests are more dense and there are a lot more fuels on the ground, particularly in the lower elevations,” says Ballard.
Since the Forest Service began putting out wildfires around 1910, what would have been frequent, low intensity fires have now become far more intense and severe. Development of homes in forested areas has led to even more suppression and far higher danger when fire does erupt.
With decades of fuels built up on the forest floor and very dense stands of mature trees, a wildfire now is more likely to burn hot and fast, as in the case of the Aspen Fire.
“The last time this area burned was 1939 in the Source Point Fire,” says Ballard. “When you look at the footprint of the Source Point Fire, the Aspen Fire is burning within that footprint.”
The Source Point Fire burned 16,896 acres between July 19 and 31. As of today, the Aspen fire is at 14,147 acres.
The lack of fire in the forest has several detrimental impacts on the health of the ecosystem, including too much competition for light, soil nutrients and water, and mature and unhealthy trees.
“Ponderosa and Jeffery Pine have thick bark that makes them fire resistant and fire tolerant,” says Ballard. “Parts of the pine and their cones actually need fire and bare mineral soil and heat to open the serotinous cones, so we’ve seen a decrease in pine on the landscape because of the lack of fire.
“The fact that forests are growing more dense actually favors the more intolerant fir species, which do not have thick bark, and are more susceptible to fire intensity.”
Other negative consequences of the lack of fire are disease and pests.
“Now that we have more dense forests, we see pine beetles spreading to larger areas,” says Ballard. “To keep the beetles from spreading rapidly, there needs to be a fair amount of space between trees. Frequent, low intensity fires create open, widely spaced trees, helping to reduce the amount of beetle-kill.”
As trees become stressed due to drought, the population of beetles may quickly increase and spread in compact forests. When healthy trees are attacked, massive areas of mature pine stands may be threatened or killed. This just adds more dry fuel to any potential fire.
As for animals perishing in wildfires, Ballard says that is extremely rare.
“Animals are very good at getting out of the way of fires. When there is smoke in the air, their instincts tell them to move farther away from it. Animals either fly away, run away or burrow deep into the ground to get away from the fire intensity until it passes. You don’t see a lot of animal mortality.”
The Aspen Fire is, fortunately, burning in an area that doesn’t threaten any homes. It is causing an impact to businesses in the Huntington Lake area, with campgrounds closed to the public so that firefighters can occupy them, and creating smoke issues. But the fire itself is therapeutic for the ecosystem and essential for sustainable forest regeneration.
A perfect example of the rejuvenating effects of fire were the spectacular blooms of wildflowers and masses of new trees in the years following the 1988 fires in Yellowstone that burned nearly 800,000 acres, one-third of the park.
Critics decried the “total destruction of Yellowstone National Park,” and many questioned existing fire management policies. However, not long after the fires ended, plant and tree species quickly reestablished themselves, and the natural regeneration of the forest was underway.
During the decade preceding the Yellowstone fires, the agencies responsible for fire management and suppression had begun to rethink their policies.
“The policy started to change in the 1980s as the Forest Service and fire managers across the nation recognized the benefits of fire and the need to look at it differently,” says Ballard.
“Now we manage wildfires. Rather than just suppression, we determine whether it’s beneficial to let natural fires burn.”