So what are we to make of the Rough Fire now that it is winding down?
Most of you know the basic story. Lightning ignited this fire in the middle Kings River Canyon on July 31st, and by early September the fire had covered an enormous area (well over 200 square miles), filled the region with choking smoke, and threatened everything from the Grant Grove of the giant sequoias to the Hume Lake Christian Camp.
A naturalist can pull all kinds of lessons out of this incident – far more, in fact, than one can squeeze into a column this size. But allow me to share some important points.
The first corrects what seems to be a broadly held misconception – that the fire was “allowed” to burn in its early stages rather than being vigorously attacked by the Forest Service.
To hold this opinion is to deny the reality of fire fighting. This fire wasn’t called the “Rough Fire” for nothing. Nature ignited it in some of the roughest and most remote country in the Sierra. The terrain, in fact, was so steep, that it would have been murderous folly to put fire crews on the ground near the ignition site. They could easily have perished.
Instead, there was little choice but to fight the fire aerially. Was this adequate? Obviously it wasn’t, but there were no other options at that point.
I’ve also heard it said that the fire would not have grown so large had the areas that burned been logged first. This also denies reality. Here’s the hard fact – most of the forested country that burned in this fire had already been logged, with the result that the big fire-resistant trees were long gone, replaced by flammable thickets of smaller trees.
Let me say that again — this fire was made worse not by lack of logging but rather by the results of many decades of intense tree harvesting that made the forest more flammable.
This is a critical point. Prescribed burns during periods of low flammability can thin forests and make them much more resistant to conflagrations. But such strategies only work in forests where the older and larger trees have been left in place.
Let me give you an example. Near its climax, the Rough Fire approached the boundary of the Grant Grove Section of Kings Canyon National Park. There it ran into unlogged forests containing large, fire-resistant trees. And, critically, these forests had been prescribe-burned by the National Park Service.
It shouldn’t surprise you that the fire was stopped there. The Rough Fire did no significant damage at Grant Grove.
And here’s the biggest lesson of all – expect to see more fires of this intensity in coming years. Our climate is changing – that’s no longer worth arguing about– and we can expect more intense swings between very wet cycles – this coming winter perhaps – and long, dry periods of intense heat and aridity.
Such a pattern will lead inevitably to more fires like the Rough Fire. Fresno County just had its turn – one of these days, fire on this scale will come to the forests of Tulare County. Sadly, we can count on it.
And perhaps, if we are smart, we can also plan for it.
© Wm. Tweed