The legacy of fire

The Rim Fire

As the Rim Fire in California’s Stanislaus National Forest grows to over 250,000 acres and firefighting efforts are getting closer to containment, the Tuolumne River Trust is working with the federal Burned Area Emergency Response team in order to assess the destruction of the fire. The team is looking to the future impact that the fire will have on the environment and how it will affect society. Throughout history, it has been apparent that some effects from fires will be immediate and others can linger for decades to come. But history has also shown that forests are resilient and will eventually rejuvenate. Much of the vegetation that covered the landscape has been destroyed and the wildlife that were fortunate enough to escape the blaze have fled to other regions that border the boundary of the fire. It may take many years, but eventually the regions will rebuild.

Forest fires have occurred naturally throughout history, but fire suppression practices have limited the amount of natural burning that occurs from year to year. Much of the Sierra Nevada have become overgrown with heavy brush and large vegetation, making the region susceptible to large, devastating fires. In the case of the Rim Fire, much of the area burned so hot that it will be left looking like a lunar landscape. The coming rains will eventually wash the landscape clean, but the increase in sediment and debris can make for complications down the road. The sediment and ash that is transported downstream are likely to increase river alkalinity, which can be harmful to fish, and become deposited into the valley’s water supply. As the roots from burnt vegetation begin to decay, the ground will become unstable and landslides are likely to occur over the next several years (Dunham et al, 2003). Eventually debris and sediment will settle out, regrowth will stabilize the landscape, and animals will return, but the effects felt by this fire could be minimized in the future by adopting better management practices that allow for thinning of the forest and prescribed burns.

Approximately 96% of the fire has burned in the Tuolumne River watershed. Even as the fire continues to burn, scientists are out determining areas of immediate concern in order to speed up the process of restoration and minimize the effects that the rains will have the coming months. The Tuolumne River Trust has made it their goal to bring awareness to the situation, help organize efforts to restore habitat, recruit volunteers, and raise additional funding that will pay for projects and help support communities that have been affected directly or indirectly by the fire. With their efforts, hopefully the effects of the fire will not be as devastating for wildlife and the surrounding landscape.

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