Good Fire, Bad Fire

May 25, 2018
Our EcoFlight tour highlighted the "good" and the "bad" of forest management on both public and private Sierra Nevada forest lands. The route went over the footprint of the 2014 King Fire, then over a patchwork private forest lands actively managed by Sierra Pacific Industries, then southward over the Caples Recommended Wilderness Area, where the state is funding a forward-thinking prescribed burn project with the support of the local water agency.
Just outside of Placerville, a series of private homes dot the landscape on either side of the South Fork American River Gorge. Widespread development in the wildland-urban interface poses a major challenge for land managers hoping to return ecologically-beneficial fire to Sierra Forests. Every year many families unnecessarily lose their homes and possessions to wildland fire. Homeowners, planners, community groups, and land managers all share the responsibility of ensuring fire-safe development within the wildland-urban interface.
The 2014 King Fire epitomizes the threats to forests and communities from modern "megafires". This human-caused fire burned 97,717 acres during the driest time of year.
The fire burned through areas of dense and highly flammable commercial pine plantations, in a region that is among the most heavily logged and human-impacted forests in California. The northern portion of the King Fire burned largely at high severity outside of the natural range of variation for Sierra forests. Unstable soils following the fire contributed to sedimentation in the Rubicon Watershed, contaminating Placer County Water Agency's reservoirs. Unfortunately, post-fire logging and reforestation practices in the King Fire area may re-create homogeneous fire-prone forests across the King Fire footprint.
The footprint of the 1992 Cleveland Fire illustrates the need to re-think conventional wisdom regarding post-fire logging and reforestation. This fire burned a mix of natural stands and plantations on Forest Service and private lands. Most of this landscape was re-planted with even-spaced plantations following the fire. These plantations burned again in the 2002 St Pauli Fire, again in the 2005 Freds Fire, and again in the 2013 Kyburz Fire. In 1993, Sierra Forest Legacy negotiated burned-tree retention standards for a portion of the Cleveland Fire. These areas of burned snags regenerated naturally, exhibiting characteristics of complex early-seral forests, which are some of the most biodiverse forest communities in the Sierra.
Caples Recommended Wilderness
The 20,000+ acre Caples Creek Watershed symbolizes forwarding-thinking ecological forest management in multiple ways. The watershed is the primary water source for more than 100,000 people served by El Dorado Irrigation District, and also provides exceptional value as a destination for backcountry recreation. The Forest Service, with support from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy and others is working to implement an 8,000-acre prescribed fire project that will restore a natural fire regime to a rare swath of high elevation old growth mixed conifer forest. The Caples Ecological Restoration Project will protect water quality in Caples Creek while protecting old growth forest habitat from loss to high severity fire. 13,700 acres of the Caples Watershed were recommended for Wilderness protection in the 1988 Eldorado Forest Plan. This Wilderness protection, in combination with the restoration project, help to debunk the common misconception that ecologically-beneficial management activities are not allowed in Wilderness areas.