Revisiting the Rough Fire
LIFE AFTER FIRE
By Sarah Elliott (May 6, 2016)
The Rough Fire was destructive, no doubt, and inundated local communities with smoke while ruining a lot of visitors’ vacation plans, but sometimes Mother Nature knows best...
The landscape is bleak. Trees are charred. All undergrowth is gone. Or is it?
Less than a year after the Rough Fire was ignited by a lightning strike, signs of life have returned to the forest. Giant sequoia seedlings are profuse in the northwest portion of the General Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park.
And the views from the Kings Canyon Highway in Sequoia National Forest consist of a brilliant mosaic of color from wildflowers that are blooming in jaw-dropping abundance.
Tour de Force— On Monday, May 2, Sequoia and Kings National Parks staff joined Sequoia National Forest-Hume Lake District staff to lead a media tour of areas affected by the Rough Fire. In a caravan of eight vehicles, the group made three stops to view the aftermath of the wildfire that began July 31, 2015, and eventually consumed 151,623 acres, making it the 13th largest fire in California history.
The lightning-caused fire, which was exacerbated by four years of drought, began on Rough Ridge in Sierra National Forest. By the time mid-August rolled around, it had jumped the Kings River and burned its way into Sequoia National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park.
In mid-September, nearly 4,000 personnel were assigned to the blaze. Suppression efforts cost about $121 million.
Saving sequoias— Some famous natural landmarks were threatened during the Rough Fire, which was finally fully contained on November 6, more than three months after it started. Firefighters made a stand in Converse Basin at the Boole Tree in Giant Sequoia National Monument (Sequoia National Forest), and while the forest burned around it the tree was saved from destruction.
The Chicago Stump, on the other side of the Converse Basin, was wrapped with fire-resistant material that is usually used to save structures.
There are some ironies here: The Boole Tree was the only giant sequoia spared in this grove during a massive logging operation a century ago; in 2015, it was spared again. The Chicago Stump is what remains of a felled giant sequoia shipped across the country to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, but during the Rough Fire, great care was taken to save what remains of the tree from additional harm.
Some artifacts extant from the logging operation (1897 to 1907) — which contained a mill, narrow-gauge railroad, and a lumber town known as Millwood — were destroyed when the fire entered the aptly named Stump Meadow.
The fire continued its march toward the General Grant Grove of giant sequoias, where the General Grant Tree grows. The Grant Tree is the second largest tree on the planet and is also designated as the Nation’s Christmas Tree and the only living National Shrine. Because of prescribed fires in this grove, the last time in 2005, the fire slowed due to lack of fuel and was able to be halted a mere one-eighth of a mile from the famous tree.
In all, nearly 9,000 acres of giant forest groves were affected by the Rough Fire.
Signs of a fire fight— Sequoia and Kings Canyon staff John Ziegler, Kings District fire management officer; fire ecologist Tony Caprio; and Mike Theune, fire communication and education specialist, were the guides who led the dozen or so members of the media — which included print, radio, and television reporters — along the 1.7-mile North Grove Loop. These experts pointed out subtleties in the forest that remain in the aftermath of the Rough Fire such as:
—Fire lines, where debris was cleared to slow the fire;
—Where back-burn operations occurred to fight fire with fire;
—Where former prescribed fires had minimized the Rough Fire’s intensity;
—Heavy undergrowth where no fire has been for too long, creating volatile conditions that could prove troublesome if and when another fire enters the grove; and
—Mature giant sequoias with scorched trunks but greenery in the crowns scattered through the burned forest, which equals success because the fire was reduced enough to not consume everything in its path.
Little Big Trees—“The hottest fires seem to produce the most sequoia seeds,” explained John Ziegler.
And deep in the forest, surrounded by the skeletons of blackened trees and barren earth, there is new life. There are sequoia seedlings, hundreds of them, emerging from the burned landscape.
They are so tiny that most would not notice. But with the help of the parks’ experts, these tiny specks of greenery became obvious as did the thousands of oatmeal-like giant sequoia seeds carpeting the forest floor.
Overview of the Rough Fire— Following the Grant Grove walk, the tour left the park boundaries and stopped at a couple of viewpoints on Sequoia National Forest land that dramatically illustrate the desolation left in the wake of the Rough Fire. At Junction View, which looks down on the confluence of the South and Middle forks of the Kings River, Shelby Charley, fire management officer for the Hume Lake District of Sequoia National Forest, pinpointed the location across the canyon to the north where the Rough Fire was first sparked.
Shelby was accompanied by his colleagues, Teresa Benson, district ranger, and Denise Alonzo, public affairs director. Almost half of the Hume Lake Ranger District was burned during the Rough Fire, they reported.
In total, 82,573 acres burned on Sequoia National Forest land, 58,541 acres were burned in Sierra National Forest, and 9,413 acres in Kings Canyon National Park.
The fire was finally declared fully extinguished on December 14. It was a long, hot, smoky four-and-a-half months.
The healing phase— All it took was a winter of average precipitation and one spring to encourage new growth on the scorched hillsides above the Kings River and on either side of the Kings Canyon Highway leading to the canyon floor. Currently, the landscape is ablaze, but not with fire but wildflowers of every color.
It will take somewhat longer for trees and other vegetation to return. And the scars will be visible for generations to come.
Highway 180 into Kings Canyon opened Friday, April 22, for the first time since mid-August 2015 when it was closed due to the Rough Fire. The public can now see for themselves that from devastation, great beauty has emerged.