The day after an arsonist pleaded guilty to setting the massive King Fire in September 2014, dozens of volunteers gathered Saturday near Stumpy Meadows Lake to help bring the forest back to life.
The volunteers ranged from children to senior citizens. They were members of the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, the Auburn Kiwanis Club and an off-road-vehicle club, among others. They planted hundreds of pine seedlings in the popular Black Oak Campground, which was singed by the King Fire.
Monique Laughlin of Placerville chaperoned a group of Girl Scouts. She said she’d seen the forest on a camping trip only a month or two before the King Fire, when it was relatively green and lush. “And now I am awed by the devastation. I’m speechless,” she said.
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With another fire season looming in drought-stricken California, the landscape decimated by the nearly 98,000-acre King Fire in El Dorado and Placer counties is slowly coming back to life. Wildflowers are blooming in the blackened earth, and the long, arduous task of replanting a vast swath of the Eldorado National Forest is just beginning.
One upside to the effort is that the trees being planted are resistant to white pine blister rust, an invasive fungus that is devastating stands of sugar pines and similar species at higher elevations across the United States.
“The recent fires are horrible events, but they present a great restoration opportunity,” Maria Mircheva, executive director of the nonprofit Sugar Pine Foundation, said last week. The foundation, based in South Lake Tahoe, helped coordinate the recent volunteer effort, as it has in other fire zones.
The goal was to plant 2,000 trees this weekend, but Mircheva said that was unlikely to happen, especially with the volunteer ranks thinned out by a cold rain that fell Saturday morning.
Volunteers often take time to learn about the forest, to give names to the newly planted trees, and even to dance around the seedlings and make up songs, she said.
“It’s not all about productivity,” Mircheva said. “It’s a spiritual experience, a connection with trees and growth and the forest.”
Jenny Ward of Martinez came to the planting with other members of an off-road-vehicle club called Diablo 4-Wheelers. She planted a tree in honor of another club member’s mother, who died recently. “I planted a tree in her name and I put a GPS marker on it so they can come up here and look at the tree,” Ward said.
Contractors hired by the U.S. Forest Service handle most of the reforestation effort and can plant one tree per minute, Mircheva said.
At the Forest Service nursery near the foothill town of Camino, about 200,000 seedlings have been allocated for reforestation of the King Fire area, said Gary Cline, who manages the nursery’s tree-growing operations.
They include Douglas fir, Ponderosa pine, incense cedar, white fir and sugar pine and giant sequoias, he said.
Many of the millions of trees burned in the King Fire were likely well over 100 years old, Cline said. The Sierra Nevada foothills were heavily logged by miners and settlers in the 1800s, but the trees have been growing back since then, he said.
Natural regrowth of such a large fire-ravaged area would normally take hundreds of years, but planting seedlings speeds things up, Cline said. “It’s probably shaving a hundred years off the process,” he said.
Pat Trimble, head ranger for the Eldorado National Forest’s Georgetown District, said there has already been one relatively small-scale planting done by a contractor but much more remains to be done.
“We’ll probably plant 10 acres on Saturday out of a total of 10,000 acres we plan to reforest over maybe 10 years,” the district ranger said. “Major reforestation has yet to happen. The big private landowners (including logging firms with land adjacent to the national forest) have been planting trees already. Our first big planting effort will happen this fall by contract crews. It’ll be out in the most severe burn-intensity areas, probably north of the Rubicon River.”
About 20 miles northeast of Georgetown on the border of El Dorado and Placer counties, the rugged and isolated Rubicon River canyon bore the worst heat of the King Fire. Flames turned a 20-mile stretch of the Rubicon canyon, once covered in old-growth forest, into a vast dead zone of ashen earth and smoldering stumps.
On Friday, Wayne Allen Huntsman pleaded guilty to setting the fire that destroyed 12 homes and 68 other buildings and forced thousands of residents to flee the area. Two thousand firefighters from around the West battled the wind-driven blaze for two weeks before the first fall rains helped bring it under control.
Huntsman started several fires and took a “selfie” video of himself amid the flames, authorities said.
Today, even the most decimated portions of the fire zone are showing signs of life. The Sugar Pine Foundation’s director said wildflowers, shrubs, and mushrooms have been making a comeback. The forest is blooming with white thorn bushes, wild lilac and bear clover.
“The fire did devastate the forest, but the forest is dynamic,” Mircheva said. “It is a rebirth and not just devastation.”