Other Voices – Fountain Fire recovery is a lesson in cooperation vs. politicking
In the wake of this year’s devastating fires, the acreage burned in the United States so far comes to almost 6 million acres. How are we going to rebuild, regenerate, and recreate our forestlands? The task appears impossible.
But looking out on the site of one of the worst fires in California history, the Fountain Fire, which struck the Sierra Nevada about 40 miles east of Redding 10 years ago, it is now difficult to tell that a catastrophic fire scarred this landscape. Twenty-foot trees blanket the area as far as the eye can see; birds and wildlife are abundant. Streams are teeming with fish and amphibians.
The reason: The area devastated by the Fountain Fire was nearly all privately owned. Actively managed, these forests received the best care possible after the fire and today, 10 years later, the 100-square-mile ground zero of wildfire destruction is already far along in its regeneration cycle.
Who performed this feat? It was made possible by leadership and extraordinary commitment from the private landowners – including lumber companies – who suffered most of the losses, and a great deal of cooperation with the devastated local communities who were most affected by this disaster. The restoration of forestlands burned by the Fountain Fire provides a blueprint for how communities and private industry can come together after a catastrophic wildfire and make burned forests healthy again in as little as a decade.
The Fountain Fire destroyed 64,000 acres and more than 300 homes before 4,000 firefighters and other workers brought it under control on Aug. 28, 1992. Timber loss was nearly 100 percent. About $200 million worth of standing lumber was burned, enough to build more than 52,000 homes.
Miraculously, no humans were killed or seriously hurt in the fire or the evacuation of several towns. But untold numbers of deer, bears and other mammals perished in the fire, which burned so hotly that pine needles of trees hundreds of yards in front of the fire burst into flames. Even the burrowing rodents and squirrels could not escape the intense heat and flames.
Waiting for nature to reseed and regenerate these forests might have taken up to 200 years, or resulted in a repopulated forest filled with opportunistic and undesirable trees and shrubs. Knowing that the managed rehabilitation of a forest can achieve better results in just 70 years, timber firms such as Roseburg Resources Co., for whom I serve as a registered professional forester and land manager, moved quickly, clearing the ground of dead timber, taking as many as 600 log truckloads per day to mills within two weeks after the fire. Roads were reconstructed, rocked, and bladed to provide access.
At the same time, we took immediate steps to minimize soil erosion and preserve major streams in the area. The fire almost totally consumed the watersheds of six fish-bearing streams; within five days after the fire, crews had built erosion dams, often made with hay bales, in the areas most prone to erosion, and grass seeded other areas.
Despite a major rainstorm that lashed the area only three weeks after the fire, by spring most creeks were flowing relatively normally.
Much of the soil remained on the hillsides, ready to begin a new forest crop, which in turn holds soil in place.
Meanwhile, Roseburg and other companies had rushed seeds that had been collected and stored earlier to local nurseries and had tree climbers harvest more seeds from the few remaining trees. We planted the first seedlings in March 1993, only seven months following the fire.
Within four or five years, more than 17 million seedlings, carefully selected to do well in this soil, climate and elevation, were growing on all of the industrially owned lands that had been devastated by the fire. Many private owners of small tracts also began reforestation, some with financial or technical help from state and federal
At five years, trees planted in the first seasons were over 10 feet tall and on their way to becoming a new forest. Repopulation of most animal species occurred rapidly as grasses and other vegetation returned to the area.
Today, the hillsides are filling in with the green crowns of young trees and shrubs. Creeks are running cold with lots of fish. Birds and mammals are active and flourishing. Some of the seedlings first planted in 1993 and 1994 are approaching 20 feet in height.
This is what can happen when we use the knowledge we’ve gained of forestry principles to work with nature – and with each other – rather than fighting pointless political battles that waste precious time.
The Fountain Fire is a story of taking the actions we know can restore forests in the interest of humans and the environment. If we do nothing, our forests will grow back too … maybe. But our children won’t live to see it. It’s a lesson worth bearing in mind as we plan how to recover from the fires that rage throughout the West.
Gaylord Briggs is land manager for Roseburg Resource Co. of Weed.
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