Scientists to study area burned by Yosemite Rim Fire

November 5, 2013 11:17am

•  To study birds as indicators of nature’s health

•  “Smokey’s goal of preventing human-caused wildfire has led to a gross misunderstanding”

Scientists plan to study 70 sites around Yosemite National Park that were burned in the “Rim” fire this summer. The fire charred 402 square miles of forest, some of which was within the park’s boundaries. It’s the third largest amount of terrain consumed by a wildfire in California since the current method of record keeping was started in the 1930s.

The cause is thought to have been an illegal campfire.

While wildfires are often described as “catastrophic” and “devastating” when human life and property are lost, for many birds, wildlife, and plants, wildfire is a vital part of the ecosystem in the Sierra Nevada, says researchers from San Francisco-based Point Blue Conservation Science.

They now plan to study 70 sites around Yosemite that were burned in the fire. In these places, they will monitor plant and bird communities, gather information about how the areas change, and make post-fire forest management recommendations.

“Strict adherence to Smokey Bear’s motto of ‘only you can prevent forest fires’ has compromised the health of our forests,” says Ryan Burnett, Point Blue’s lead Sierra Nevada scientist. “Smokey’s goal of preventing human-caused wildfire has led to a gross misunderstanding of the role wildfire plays in forests. We now know that wildfires are critical to sustaining forests and wildlife populations.”

As a result of fire suppression policies over the past century, many Sierra Nevada forests are now filled with far more trees, especially small ones that are more susceptible to fire. This build-up of fuels, combined with longer, drier summers means that when fires occur, they burn with greater intensity and kill more trees, changing the ecology of the forest.

In contrast, the Rim Fire’s pace and intensity decreased once it entered Yosemite National Park, where land managers have used fire to reduce fuel loads for the last 30 years.

Point Blue says birds are an excellent indicator of nature’s health. Over years of research, they have looked closely at how trees are removed (by wildfire or mechanically with machines and chainsaws) and what the impact was to birds. They concluded that an increased use of fire along with some mechanical reduction is the best approach to reduce fuels, and sustain wildlife in the Sierra Nevada. In addition, their findings show the value of setting aside parts of the burned forest for plants and animals that flourish in these areas after a fire. This involves leaving dead trees standing and allowing the forest to regenerate naturally instead of densely replanting conifers.

“Clear-cutting large swaths of forests after a wildfire has immediate and lasting negative impacts on wildlife,” says Ryan Burnett, Point Blue’s lead researcher on the Sierra Nevada team. “It’s time we take a new approach, using research and monitoring to be more strategic and thoughtful about our forest management decisions after a fire. With climate change likely to increase the area affected by wildfire every year, these new practices will be more important than ever.”

The organization says there will be winners and losers from large fires like the Yosemite Rim fire. Species like the Pacific Fisher and the Spotted Owl will potentially lose habitat but even the most blackened acres of the Rim Fire will be teeming with life a few years after the wildfire, it says.

Species like the black-backed woodpecker, the mountain bluebird, and the lazuli bunting are some of the many species that benefit from wildfire in the Sierra Nevada, it says.

“Post-fire landscapes are not catastrophic wastelands,” says Mr. Burnett,. “They are important habitats that sustain biological diversity in the Sierra Nevada, especially in this era in which we have dramatically reduced fires fingerprint on the ecosystem.”

Point Blue scientists are now working to incorporate their findings into every National Forest management plan in the Sierra Nevada.

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