Editor’s Note: This is the last in a three-part series.
Ranger Kelly Stafford Jones works for the U.S. Forest Service. She is diminutive but tough, and I can tell she doesn’t really trust me when I start asking her questions about the largest wildfire in the known history of the Stanislaus Forest.
Reporters have come from the far reaches of the United States, and with so many writers clamoring for stories, it isn’t surprising that her level of tolerance is waning. I explain to her that I am a columnist for the Sun-Star, but I can tell that doesn’t make her feel much better. It is only after I mention that I once lived a few miles down the highway that she becomes friendlier.
We are standing at the Rim of the World vista off Highway 120, looking down over the south fork of the Tuolumne River and Jawbone Ridge, where the Rim fire started on Aug. 17. It is early October, and the fire is still smoldering around Cherry Lake and Hetch Hetchy Dam, about 25 miles northeast.
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Stafford Jones has been posted at this site to answer questions. She is optimistic in the way so many people who have been closely affected by this fire seem to be. She repeats, over and over, that the Stanislaus is already regenerating. She points to a sprig of oak leaf on the other side of the guard rail. “It’s only been seven days since the fire’s been under control,” she says, “and already we’re seeing some green.”
It is the first sign of regeneration I have seen in mile upon mile of charred forest.
Someone comes over and asks about the wildlife. They want to know how many deer carcasses have been found by rangers during the cleanup. Stafford Jones states that she knows of only two deer skeletons that have been spotted.
Cattle, though, are another story. They are not so good at fleeing, at leaping over fallen logs and weaving through conifers exploding in flames. There are about 350,000 acres of open range land in the Stanislaus National Forest, and around 4,000 head of cattle graze there in spring and summer. In August, many of those cows would have been only weeks away from being moved to lower ground.
But nothing can be done about what has already been lost, and so rangers are looking toward the future, figuring out how to proceed with reforestation. Burned Area Emergency Response teams made up of natural scientists will hike through the forest until winter weather sets in, looking for spots where erosion might contaminate the Tuolumne River and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and create mudslides. They’ll dig ditches to divert water, spray mulch, and re-seed. They will hike, dig, spray and reseed in rugged terrain.
Stafford Jones acknowledges that the process will be difficult and lengthy, but she seems unwilling to succumb to despair. “It’ll all come back,” she says. “It’ll all be green again one day.”
I admire her ability to see so much hope in a single oak leaf. But along with looking forward, it might also be good to look backward in our efforts to preserve Yosemite and its surrounding forests.
Scientists estimate that before California took over Yosemite under the Yosemite Grant of 1864, about 16,000 of Yosemite’s 747,000 acres burned each year in natural fires. Today, the U.S. Forest Service understands the importance of fire in maintaining healthy forests, but still oversees only 12,000 to 16,000 acres of prescribed burns every decade.
I say goodbye to Stafford Jones and promise to do my best to quote her accurately. She smiles, but I suspect she remains skeptical.
As I walk back to my car, I look over the guardrail one last time, hoping to spy a new leaf or a sprouting tuft of grass. Perhaps, I think, when I am in my 80s, I will come through here and see a living forest once again, but I cannot conjure such a vision today.
I do not have Stafford Jones’ youthful capacity for imagining a lush, verdant future in this landscape.