Rim Fire: What's Next (ecologically)?


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Trad climber
San Francisco, USA
Topic Author's Original Post - Sep 8, 2013 - 08:25pm PT
Question for SuperTopo botanists, ecologists, horticulturalists, forestry professionals, and others:

How will the forest recover from the Rim Fire?

I drove back on 120 today and there was great variety in the level of damage. In some areas, everything was toast, from the forest floor to the crowns. How will recovery look in these areas? What species will colonize those areas first? How long will it take for species to succeed back to a mature forest?

Possibly a more interesting question is the areas that were less heavily damaged. Some trees still have their needles but they've turned brown. Are they dead, or will they recover next year? What species like to grow in the recently burned soil under an intact canopy?

I feel like I don't know enough about California ecology and would love to learn from your collective wisdom.

Trad climber
Less than a second shy of 49 minutes
Sep 8, 2013 - 08:31pm PT
Epilobium and other pioneer species will spring up. . . read about them here:



Trad climber
Less than a second shy of 49 minutes
Sep 8, 2013 - 08:33pm PT
Lodgepole pine are interesting. . . really good info here. . . and further down the thread.

the albatross

Gym climber
Sep 8, 2013 - 11:33pm PT
I like to believe that fire is a natural process. For whatever multitude of reasons (i.e. a warming planet, a century of fire suppression, more humans in the woods), in the last twenty years we have witnessed more severe wildfires. Severe meaning larger, hotter burning fires. Of course within any fire some areas burn hotter than others. In areas which are "moonscaped" (burned extremely hot due to heavy fuel loading) some soils actually become water repellent (hydrophobic). Those areas might take centuries to "recover" whatever that means. In areas that burn with less intensity, perhaps mimicking burns which occurred for tens of thousands of years before this last century, it probably will be springing with life after the first rains. In areas burned of less intensity, fire sort of 'cleans house', removing accumulated fuels from the forest floor, releasing nutrients back into the soil, opening up the forest for sunlight to reach the floor, etc... I've seen many moderately burned areas bursting with life just weeks after being burned. I'm fairly certain that most scientists would consider a fire such as the Rim fire to be "unnatural" due to reasons stated above, so it will be interesting to see how the land recovers in the coming decades.
I don't know if he has anything online, but Dr. Walter Covington of Northern Arizona University has done extensive research on fire effects on the ponderosa forest of NAZ.
On a side note, a few days ago one of my pilots told me he saw a large black bear running from the area where firefighters were working. It sounded neat that the bear knew enough to escape the fire area. This pilot spends his career working on fires and believes that much wildlife is able to escape the flames, almost as if it were a part of their evolutionary development.
Ron Anderson

Trad climber
Soon to be Nipple suckling Liberal
Sep 8, 2013 - 11:38pm PT
I think the worst culprits will be invasive weeds/brush. If Great basin burns are any indicator. They have abilities to spring up and over take a lot of natural vegetation in much harsher climates.

Trad climber
Truckee, CA
Sep 9, 2013 - 12:39am PT
The lodgepole pine (P. contorta ssp. murrayana) does not have serotinous cones (opened by high temperature). The other subspecies do, but not that one, which is the taxon that is widespread in the Sierra and Rockies. And regardless, most or all of the Rim fire occurred at lower elevations than lodgepole forest. Also, there won't be much fireweed: too dry.

What there will be is a TON of lupine. There was a fire some 15 or so years ago along 120, possibly re-burned by the Rim fire, and there were spectacular displays of lupine for years. Also, there will be lots of shrub regrowth, mostly from seeds that germinate after fire (e.g. ceanothus, of which several species are abundant in west slope Sierra vegetation), but also from sprouting. It will probably not take very long for pine seeds to blow in, but oaks will take a while. Fires in the Great Basin often are followed by weeds, but this is less of an issue in the region of the Rim fire. Unless of course they are transported in by equipment.

I don't know about the post-fire succession of the west slope conifers. I would suppose that the stand-replacing parts of the fire (trees totally burned up) will regrow only from seeds that blow in, but areas of ground fire might still have viable seeds that will germinate. Trees whose leaves are all browned may or may not survive the first year, but if the buds of most branches are sizzled, the tree won't make it long term. If there is very much green canopy, it's no problem, they'll just carry on growing.

Edited to expand: Since you've opened the fire ecology can of worms, and the thread is still in the realm of information rather than insults, a few other notes:

There is excellent paleoecological science showing a good correlation between periods of warmer, drier climate and incidence of large fires in the western U.S. And indeed, if you look at the list of the 20 largest fires in California history (the earliest of these being in 1932 - earlier, there just isn't good enough documentation), 11 of them have occurred in the last 10 years, and only 3 in the 10 years before that, 3 in the 10 years before that, 2 in the 70s, and the one in 1932. That's not chance; there's a definite climate connection. Fuel accumulation may have contributed a little bit, but only in conifer forest, and many of the really large fires are in coast range or southern California chaparral, where the issue of fuel accumulation and suppression is totally irrelevant.

It is also interesting that about 2/3 of the 20 largest fires were human-caused (including power lines). But this was ALWAYS the case. The high incidence of ground fires in the Sierra prior to, say, 1900 was from them being set by both the Indians and U.S. immigrants. There's some interesting information that maybe the heavy grazing pressure from cattle and sheep since then eliminated the low fine fuels needed for spread of these "healthy" understory fires, but I've just seen one paper about that. Need more info.

Going further back, there never was a period of the hypothetical "pristine" Sierra forests. EVER. Just as soon as the glaciers melted about 10,000 years ago and the climate became suitable for conifer forest, in came the first (or maybe by then the second) wave of immigrant peoples coming from Asia, and you can bet they were setting fires to make good herbivore and herbaceous-product-gathering vegetation any time they could. Before Smoky, why would you extinguish a fire? It's a useful thing, you or some other traveler might be happy to find it still going. So, there were a lot of fires since forever. All available lines of evidence indicate this was the case for centuries, even thousands of years. And most of them human-caused.

That said, the human-caused fire frequency in some places, most especially So Cal chaparral, is way to high and is resulting in conversion from chaparral, which is excellent habitat, to non-native weeds and grasses, which is not.

Food for thought!

One last edit: link to the Calfire list is http://www.fire.ca.gov/communications/downloads/fact_sheets/20LACRES.pdf

Trad climber
Sierra Madre, CA
Sep 9, 2013 - 12:42am PT
Hi all - I am at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. We are preparing with the state of California, USGS, USFS, NPS, NSF, etc. to perform coincident imaging spectrometer and lidar flights over the Rim Fire scar (once it is just that). Some parts of the scar had been flown multiple times this last spring for snow studies. The imaging that we perform in the next month or so will give us a strong idea of the impacts of the fire immediately post-fire and a baseline against which we can determine with annual or so flights to determine the ecological recovery and the hydrologic implications. I will come back with image results when we have them and update you all.


Mountain climber
Sep 9, 2013 - 02:09am PT
Cool. I'd get back into remote sensing and GIS if I could get into a land cover change study like that. Who has my funding?? ;-)

Trad climber
Greeley Hill
Sep 9, 2013 - 10:34am PT
mongrel, thanks for that very informative post!
Dingus Milktoast

Gym climber
And every fool knows, a dog needs a home, and...
Sep 9, 2013 - 10:53am PT
I've heard that soil sterilization bit before. They said when the Priest Grade burnt, down below Groveland, that the fire approached 2000 degrees on the ground and had sterilized the soil.

The next spring the wild flowers and other annuals that inundate burnt chaparral zones blossomed by the millions. More than a decade later the you're hard pressed to know a fire burnt it all out. Sterilized it even!

So I'm dubious of this sterilization bullsh#t. I think its reporters repeating reporters, for the most part.

In terms of the ponderosa forest / yellow pine and upper black oak regions that have burned - they are all fire adapted with various strategies to deal with this natural succession of a forest. Left to its own devices the forest will return to a mature canopy. Climate change may push the forest upslope though, as it reestablishes, extending chaparral onto higher sunny slopes.

The hardest thing to do? Look at a burnt moonscape and realize this... the forest is still there. I know that's an esoteric and empty feeling notion right now, but... its nevertheless true.

Its part of the fire cycle. That forest will grow back has it has countless times past.

Wade Icey

Trad climber
Sep 9, 2013 - 11:33am PT
From the Yosemite Conservancy.....

Help us Restore Yosemite
Restoration efforts begin after the devastating fire that burned more than 65,000 acres in Yosemite National Park. As the Rim Fire reaches containment, we ask for your help to restore areas damaged in the blaze. Your gift to the Yosemite Fire Restoration Fund will go directly to the National Park Service to help restore trails, facilities, and wildlife habitat destroyed by the fire in Yosemite. Donate now.

Curious what a "Restoration Effort", entails...
the albatross

Gym climber
Sep 9, 2013 - 01:15pm PT
Some interesting observations on this thread.

Mongrel, That was an informative post. I'm curious that you stated most fires are human caused and have been for thousands of years. I have worked perhaps a hundred forest fires which were started by lightning. I know that northern Arizona and Florida have hundreds of fires started most every year by lightning. I do understand that human caused fires are a significant source of fire ignitions and have worked many such incidents. Everything from arson, to downed power lines, car and airplane crashes, careless burning of toilet paper and refuse, abandoned campfires, fireworks, careless welding, etc...

Fort Mental, you are correct that Los Alamos first burned (from an escaped prescribed fire) in May 2000. There was another fire there in 2011 called the Las Conchas ( I believe we were able to contain it without any structures being burned). Your photo looks like it may have been from the more recent fire. I'm not sure how snowfall would be effected by the loss of vegetation, but it would certainly melt much quicker with the loss of canopy cover.

This is an good thread, I hope it remains positive and educational.
the albatross

Gym climber
Sep 9, 2013 - 02:58pm PT
That's amazing that all those snags in the photo are still standing from the Cerro Grande fire in May 2000. One might think that wind and snow would have knocked over more of them by now.

Boulder climber
I'm James Brown, Bi-atch!
Sep 9, 2013 - 03:37pm PT
if you drive Hwy 70 towards Lake Almanor, on the left is a good chunk of land that used to be forest but has nothing growing there now, looks like the desert, been that way about 5 years,

look down from mt woodson to the south-east, still scorched from a fire in the 90's,

on the other hand, plants have took root on the blown out section of mt st helens, biologist had predicted that the area would remain void of vegetation,


Bungwater Hollow, Ida-ho
Sep 9, 2013 - 05:44pm PT

Pioneer species.

Trad climber
Truckee, CA
Sep 9, 2013 - 07:24pm PT
Albatross, absolutely a spot-on comment about relative frequencies of human-caused and lightning fires. I should perhaps have emphasized more strongly that I was talking about California. If you look at the Calfire list, there's the info on which of the 20 largest are human-caused, which lightning, and the dates and acreages. There is very definitely more lightning, and lightning-caused fires, further inland. (Just look at the months when precip falls in California locations, and compare with stations further and further east in the SW desert, and you immediately see that the incidence of summer thunderstorms increases along that geographic gradient.) Lightning-caused fires are relatively uncommon in the California coast ranges and southern cal. chaparral; but there are huge fires in those places occasionally. Naturally, there's no way to speculate about relative frequencies of human-caused vs. natural fires in California prior to the historical era (say, prior to 1850 or so). But from the earliest records we have, there were a LOT of human-caused fires, so it is reasonable to extrapolate that these have been common from the arrival of humans in the area. Fires are useful! and being genetically predisposed to be pyros was probably a key adaptation that conferred an advantage on H. sapiens, which figured out how to use this scary tool early on.

The supposed "sterilization" of soils is much more complicated than it may sound. True, the surface may lose all living cells to some variable depth, but the few that remain below that depth can recreate the microbial community at a rate that varies depending on many factors. Same with seeds, albeit to a lesser extent because they are larger. But some of them get carried down macropores, others brought in by wind or vertebrates, and so on. I'm somewhat wary of restoration efforts, they can be very misguided. Nowadays, there's much more reliance on native species, but still, you can go very wrong using native species from the wrong habitat type, or even the right species but short-circuiting ecological succession in an undesirable way. Increasingly, there's an appreciation that you can just wait for recovery.

Fire and its ecological effects vary greatly from one fire to the next within the same ecological system, and even more so between different ecological settings. Generalizing will always get you in trouble. If you surf around the internet for stuff written by Jon Keeley (USGS), and then follow up on his various co-authors, you'll find a treasure trove of really really smart ideas and excellent field science.


Trad climber
San Francisco, USA
Topic Author's Reply - Sep 10, 2013 - 01:40pm PT
Thanks for the extremely informative responses, everyone!

When did the area near Big Oak Flat burn? Obviously that region still hasn't recovered, though there is a lot of green there these days.

I'll be looking forward to the air surveys.
Ron Anderson

Trad climber
Soon to be Nipple suckling Liberal
Sep 10, 2013 - 01:55pm PT
On more simpler terms, im sure there will be plantings of various species of trees native to the region and "zone". Arial seeding of grasses for erosion concerns also a common practice. That burn was sloppy in many places and leaves islands of trees/ seed sources , so near those areas natural regen is a possible. Other areas will require artificial regeneration to have any trees in it. Much of the north , north east sections of the fire, being so rocky wont see much if any rehab work. Even though trees grew in that area before the fire, artificial regeneration in those places tends to have little survival rates 5 yrs post planting. South facing slopes will also have a dire time recovering as they are naturally drier - facing the sun.

Then take in the siege of invasive weeds we experience these days from whit top to thistles. Cyanosis (sp?) species are also quite common post burn in many zones throughout NV/CA/Or/Wa. They can easily become the climax species and drown out competition.
Water erosion work will be a critical part of the rehab in the important watershed. Im sure there are teams there now, all planning the next ten years worth of rehab work on this burn. Its a slow process no matter the issues faced. The tree count alone is in the millions. Volunteer to go planting, and remember,, green side UP!;-)


Gym climber
South of Heaven
Sep 10, 2013 - 02:02pm PT
Lodgepole pine serotiny depends on adaptations to the local fire regime

Muir, P. S. and J. E. Lotan. 1985. Disturbance history and serotiny of Pinus contorta in western Montana. Ecology 66:1658-1668

and squirrels


Just hope it doesn't get covered with white thorn. Hate that sh#t.

Arial seeding of grasses for erosion concerns also a common practice.

Studies I'm aware of show seeding with grasses is ineffective unless it is followed almost immediately by adequate rain, but not so much that it exceeds the infiltration capacity of the soil and causes overland flow. Not many people I know who work in BAER advocate aerial seeding any more... it is a waste of money. I'm sure they will have CCC crews hand seeding/raking/watering in highly vulnerable areas.
Ron Anderson

Trad climber
Soon to be Nipple suckling Liberal
Sep 10, 2013 - 02:27pm PT
In a burn that size wes, i wouldnt take out arial work. Its a race against time as you know. Many states still use planes , especially on huge acre burns. Not the best way , but it does help.

Rizzou canyon down by walker Ca burned a few years back, and is now a massive plot of thistles as far as you can see. Incredible over taking by a noxious invasive weed. There are some old burns along the Carson front range which took place 80 yrs ago, and are 100% cyanosis. Even with good seed cast on steep slopes, the brush became dominant.

I see two priorities for rehab.. The watershed for SF, and the "view corridors" along any major roadways. Which includes any lands around established areas, towns etc.

And, they could take this opportunity to increase the sequoia groves !

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