In a blackened section of Grant Grove, a tiny green sapling – just days old – pushes through the ashen soil. The thumbnail-sized tree sits defiantly in the shadow of its parent, a 1,000-year-old giant sequoia scorched in last year’s Rough fire.
That sequoia and dozens of others in Kings Canyon National Park and the Sequoia National Forest are dying because of the blaze, which tore through more than 150,000 acres between July and November en route to becoming the biggest fire in the state last year.
Most of the big trees are still standing – it could be years before they fall. The massive trunks now feel more like plastic foam than wood – crumbling into ash when touched.
However, the sapling and hundreds of siblings and cousins sprouting around it illustrate a fundamental point the National Park Service wants any concerned visitors to know: Fire is an important part of the forest’s ecosystem.
“There’s this belief out there that the forest is decimated, but it’s not,” Kings Canyon National Park spokesman Mike Theune says. “This is business as usual.”
As he speaks, Theune walks along North Grove Loop near the park’s Sunset Trail with Tony Caprio, the park’s fire ecologist, and Robert Sanders, who supervises the park’s 65 firefighters.
The hike allows them to get reacquainted with the forest, which they knew well before the Rough fire. It is a typical ritual for Caprio and Sanders, who have seen 72 fire seasons at several national parks and forests between the two of them.
Most of the trail is intact. In fact, years of drought have taken a far greater toll on the trees than the 18th-largest recorded wildfire in California history. Pockets of small, brown trees – many swaying under their own dead weight – have nearly swallowed the sea of green.
Cal Fire, which answers the annual call to fight wildfires throughout the state, predicted as many as 29 million trees were killed in the state by dry conditions and pests over that last five years.
The Rough fire actually cleared some of these dead and dying trees from the forest, Theune says. It also destroyed small bushes and trees that compete with the lords of the forest – the giant sequoias – for precious water and space.
A walk through the forest
Parts of the 1 1/2 -mile loop were untouched by fire, but many of the giants bear the scars of previous wildfires. According to tree ring scarring, wildfires hit the Grant Grove area every 10 to 25 years.
Caprio keeps a piece of bark with him from a 1,000-year-old giant sequoia as a teaching tool. The inner bark on one side predates the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, while the other section grew out during the California Gold Rush. Clearly marked notches indicate major fires – some probably similar in scale to the Rough fire – about every dozen years.
“The bark is low density and up to three feet thick,” Caprio says. “And it will regenerate after fire as long as the tree survives.”
The largest trees tend to survive as long as the flames don’t reach the canopy, the leafy highest point of the grove. The oldest of these trees date back to 1400 B.C. Some of the younger trees weren’t that lucky.
Caprio approaches two sequoias just off the trail that first sprouted in the 1970s. The left one is clearly a goner, but the twin to the right may survive. That space isn’t big enough for the two of them.
But how can two identical trees, standing about three feet from each other, have different fates in a 150,000-acre wildfire?
“People picture this ‘Bonanza’-like explosion where fire spreads out in a big circle, destroying everything in its path,” Theune says. “But it doesn’t work like that.”
The Rough fire had almost daily course changes. Terrain, hot weather, wind conditions and the efforts of thousands of firefighters all factored into a zigzagging path through the forest.
Previous prescribed burns also played a major role in the Rough fire’s behavior.
Over the last few decades, the national parks and forests have leaned more and more on controlled burns. Firefighters burn small patches over and over again to get rid of the brush, moss and debris that fuel gigantic wildfires like last year’s.
The start and end of the North Grove Loop were only partly damaged by the blaze because of this tactic, Theune says. He believes the Rough fire illustrates the success of decades of controlled burns, as virtually all of the dozens of buildings and cabins in the fire’s path were spared.
The center of the loop proves his point.
It looks like a bomb went off. The giants are charred, while the bushes and smaller trees were nearly all reduced to ash. The rocks are deeply scarred and no longer covered with the moss that blankets boulders on the other side of the trail. No prescribed burning had been done in this area.
However, this dark scene also is a breeding ground for new life.
This is where the trio found hundreds of tiny green saplings. Caprio says they all germinated in the last two weeks. Fire causes giant sequoia cones to release their seeds, so the blaze actually was a driving force in creating new giants.
“It brings a tear to your eyes – the new life after 99 days of fire,” Theune says. He drops to the ground near a large patch of saplings. “Hey, Tony – we found a new grove.”
“I’ve never seen clumps like this before,” Caprio says.
As the group looped back toward the beginning of the trail, Theune noted that wildlife already has returned to the fire area. The deer actually prefer clear forest, he says, because it is easier to see and hear predators. A few bears also have rifled through trash cans in some of the park’s campgrounds – an annoyance, but a good sign overall.
Theune pointed out a particularly chatty group of birds.
“Those are mountain chickadees,” Caprio says. “We call those the cheeseburger birds, because their calls sound like they’re saying ‘Cheeseburger! Cheeseburger!’ ”
A few steps down the trail, another sighting – this time something that looked like a skunk or a weasel.
“It’s a fisher,” Caprio says.
“Wow, that’s extremely rare,” Theune says. “I’ve only seen one in the wild before.”
“Me, too,” Sanders says.
Caprio says the park soon will deploy acoustic monitors to measure just how many animals have returned. It also will update a database cataloging each giant sequoia.
The hike showed the range of damage – from untouched plants to scorched earth – in the forest. It may be a natural part of this ecosystem, but there’s no doubting the Rough fire was a massive threat to the man-made structures dotting the forest.
The camps were evacuated, and firefighters – not children – formed lines for food in the cafeterias and settled into dormitories during their brief breaks from the miles of fire lines formed to protect the spot.
Grant Grove also was evacuated, as fire threatened its cabins, restaurant and visitors’ center. Various mountain communities and private cabins also were endangered.
Prescribed burning early last year likely saved the John Muir Lodge from the flames, Theune says.
Miraculously, Cedar Grove – deep inside the Rough fire’s burn area – was untouched. The Park Service didn’t lose a single campground.
In all, firefighters – and probably providence – saved nearly $400 million in property. Costs to battle the blaze, which drew firefighters from across the country, reached just over $120 million.
The Kings Canyon Lodge
The lodge, privately owned but situated within the Sequoia National Forest, burned to the ground in late August. It had stood as a tourist destination, ice cream shop and gas station for 78 years.
A charred, formerly white street sign ironically reading “I See Ice Cream” sits on the road near the former lodge. Owner Lewis Evans had hoped to rebuild. The piles of debris have been cleared from his land, but no new buildings are under construction.
Farther down the road, scenes similar to those found on the North Grove Loop dot the side of Highway 180. Untouched green bushes give way to blackened twigs that appear to have come right from a Tim Burton movie.
The one difference in the drive since August? Waves of pink, purple, yellow and orange wildflowers have blanketed both the green and scorched areas.
Most of the trees around Cedar Grove were untouched. A look at the canyon from the lodge’s emergency helipad shows the path of the fire as it crossed around Cedar Grove, burning a quick path through the extremely flammable brush.
Theune and Sanders recently returned from wildfire training. Because the tactics used to prevent and fight such blazes constantly are changing, all fire personnel must go through new training before the fire season starts in May. They also have to pass physical trials, which consist of carrying a 45-pound pack while walking three miles in 45 minutes.
Did not let it burn
Many accused the Park Service of allowing the Rough fire to spiral out of control. It began on July 31 with a lightning strike, which ignited the flammable bear clover on a steep canyon slope. It remained under 100 acres for several days before growing exponentially through August and September.
“This was a full suppression fire from day one,” Theune says. “We did not ‘let it burn.’ We did everything we could from the very first day.”
Theune says aircraft dropped retardant on the area as soon as the fire was spotted, but the terrain in one of the steepest canyons in North America meant that sending in firefighters would have been too great a risk to their safety.
“You need boots on the ground to fight these fires,” Sanders says. “The aircraft is just to slow it down.”
Sanders says a burning tree fell down the canyon and ignited it in several hard-to-reach places. Because all of this happened during the hottest time of the year in an area parched by drought, fire conditions escalated quickly.
The trio was proud of last year’s efforts and says not much would change if the scenario repeated itself this year.
California experienced an average rain year for the first time in several years during this past winter, which Caprio says could slightly shorten the main fire season.
“But this is California,” he says. “There’s always a risk. We have fires every month here – not just during the season.”
Theune says continued investment in prescribed burns and training is the best way to keep wildfires at bay.
“We made an investment in our future with these prescribed burns,” Theune says. “And we saw a return on that investment in the Rough fire.”