California Forum

Another View: Fires create vibrant forests

A small plant begins to grow among trees scorched by the Rim fire in the Stanislaus National Forest, near Tuolumne City, in this photo taken in September 2013.
A small plant begins to grow among trees scorched by the Rim fire in the Stanislaus National Forest, near Tuolumne City, in this photo taken in September 2013. Associated Press file

Jane Braxton Little’s column, “A substitute plan to revive forest after fire” (Forum, Northern Exposure, June 7) about a 2014 forest fire left readers with a skewed impression of the effects of fire in California’s forests, and it overlooked the vibrant forest habitat created by intense fires. Her only description of the post-fire forest was a quote from a Forest Service official – “black trees and black ground.”

Actually, recent large fires in California have burned just as forest fires naturally have done for millions of years, with a mosaic of different fire intensities. There are patches of high-intensity fire in which trees have been transformed into blackened snags, but the majority of the fire area experiences low- and moderate-intensity fire that retains plenty of living green trees.

My family and I witnessed this mosaic first-hand when we recently visited the site of the 2013 Rim fire near Yosemite. It was actually the high-intensity patches that my family was most excited to see. Dead trees, i.e., snags, make great habitat for wildlife, and we read that scientists have discovered that these areas of unlogged dead trees, called “snag forests,” have some of the greatest diversity and abundance of plants and animals of any forest type.

As we walked into the largest patch of intensely burned forest from the Rim fire, we were amazed by all the life, including a gorgeous array of purple, yellow and pink wildflowers that follow wildfires. My wife, an avid birdwatcher, delighted in the flurry of activity from bluebirds, woodpeckers and other birds feeding and making their homes in the snag forest. My daughter is obsessed with ladybugs, and she found plenty to play with amid the verdant understory of plants emerging after the fire in a place that the Forest Service described as “nuked.”

The Forest Service also claimed that new trees would not grow back on their own in these snag forest patches, but my family could plainly see that this was not true. We encountered lots of new trees emerging there.

The saddest part of my family’s visit was seeing the long swaths where the ecologically rich habitat created by the fire had been cut down by the Forest Service, leaving bare dirt and stumps. The fire itself was not a disaster; it was a boon for life in the forest. The real disaster is the Forest Service’s destruction of the post-fire forests.

Douglas Bevington is the forest program director for Environment Now, a philanthropic organization that supports environmental protection in California.

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