Empire Fire in Yosemite shows that not all wildfires are bad. It is ‘a good fire’

Forests are burning, but that can be OK, say Yosemite National Park officials

As the Empire Fire continues burning in Yosemite National Park, fire specialists explain how managing a fire by letting it burn can help the health of a forest.
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As the Empire Fire continues burning in Yosemite National Park, fire specialists explain how managing a fire by letting it burn can help the health of a forest.

Standing near flames burning hot through wilderness dusted by an early September snow, Kelly Martin gets excited as she starts to imagine spring. She talks about new wildflowers, wildlife and trees returning to a forest floor that was much denser before an Aug. 1 lightning strike started the Empire Fire in Yosemite’s high country.

“You feel like you’re on a scavenger hunt, looking for new and different things after a fire,” says the chief of fire and aviation for Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite officials have largely allowed the Empire Fire to burn a natural course, apart from protecting Bridalveil Creek Campground and Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area. The reason: Fire can be good.

It’s not all gloom and doom.

Kelly Martin, chief of fire and aviation, Yosemite National Park

“There’s just an absolute fascinating back story about why fire is such a really cool and renewable and regenerating force that very few people understand,” Martin says.

Martin and Yosemite fire ecologist Kristen Shive aimed to help people better understand wildfire during a Thursday tour of the Empire Fire, which has burned more than 6,300 acres off Glacier Point Road. They also talked about how more work remains to prevent larger, hotter blazes that can damage ecosystems and threaten homeowners.

The Empire Fire is an example of a “good fire,” Martin says. Its largely low-intensity flames have cleaned up downed logs from past fires and dense underbrush, improving water storage and helping the roots of larger trees reach water more easily.

“It’s not all gloom and doom,” Martin says.

That applies, Shive says, even to massive blazes like the Rim Fire in 2013, the state’s third largest, burning more than 257,000 acres. Shive says the blaze wasn’t as severe in Yosemite as it was in Stanislaus National Forest.

Increased danger and cost

Still, wildfire danger is only growing.

Climate change and dry conditions have contributed to more fire activity throughout the West over the past 30 years, Shive says, and “that trend seems to be continuing.”

We are seeing more severe fires.

Kristen Shive, Yosemite fire ecologist

Decades of fire suppression, with the goal of putting out every fire instead of allowing some to burn naturally – a common practice into the 1970s – also contributed to denser forests, resulting in hotter wildfires burning into the canopies of more trees instead of creeping along forest floors.

When that kind of severe fire activity occurs near structures, Martin says, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars in firefighting efforts. One example: The recent South Fork Fire, burning near the community of Wawona. Martin expects that fire will cost around $9 million to suppress, compared to around $900,000 for the Empire Fire that’s burning mostly in wilderness.

For the South Fork Fire, more firefighters were needed, including bulldozers that plowed lines around the blaze and and airplanes that dropped fire retardant. For the Empire Fire, fewer firefighters were needed, and they used more natural methods, digging trenches around the fire’s perimeter and fighting fire with fire in some areas, a technique called back-burning.

Not every fire – or side of a fire – can or should be fought, Martin says.

“We can’t just keep arm-wrestling fires,” Martin says. “We have to actually step back for a minute and say, ‘We can be effective there, but we can’t be effective over there.’” 

Future of fighting fire

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke on Sept. 12 released a memo directing staff to “take a serious turn from the past” by working to prevent forest fires “through aggressive and scientific fuels reduction management.”

Fire is coming. It’s not a question of if it will burn, it’s when.

Kristen Shive

Zinke’s memo was welcome direction for Shive.

“We feel encouraged by it because we’ve been doing what amounts to very active fire management for a long time,” Shive says. “And I think that memo is correct, but this has not been widespread practice. There’s a handful of places in the Western U.S that have been doing this for a very long time. Most places have not.”

Yosemite has been studying and managing fire for more than 40 years. Fires are frequent in the national park, although most are small. Of 12 wildfires now burning in Yosemite, more than half are less than an acre in size and were caused by lightning strikes.

We live in a fire-adapted ecosystem. I think we need to remember that and figure out how we can better live with fire.

Kristen Shive

To protect structures and communities, Yosemite fire officials remove vegetation near structures and do prescribed burning, also known as controlled burning, where fires are intentionally lit to burn off excess vegetation. They plan to continue using both techniques, along with allowing fires to burn in wilderness.

They want to use these tools more frequently in the spring, fall and winter to reduce summer wildfires, but that largely depends on the public, Martin says. Fire managers work closely with air pollution officials and wildlife biologists to decide when and where to do prescribed burning, but it still comes with risk.

“How much smoke can we live with in the off-season?” Martin says. “Those are all really big questions that we need to wrestle with going forward. … What can or should we do different? And what is the public willing to tolerate as well?”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge