August 17, 2014 will mark the one year anniversary of the Rim Fire in the California Sierra Nevadas. It was dubbed the Rim Fire due to its proximity to the Rim of the World scenic lookout. The third largest wildfire in California’s history, it burned 257,000 acres of land in Stanislaus National Forest and the western edge of Yosemite National Park, in addition to private land in neighboring counties. It cost more than $127 million to contain, and included more than $50 million in property damage.
In the early hours of the fire, a deer hunter was rescued. After the hunter was taken to safety by helicopter, investigators interviewed him to see if he witnessed anything. He told them that he had slipped and caused a rock slide that may have ignited the dry vegetation. As time went on, his story changed several times, even blaming it on marijuana growers. Finally, as the fire had been raging for several weeks, he finally told the real story.
In a written confession, Keith Matthew Emerald admitted had started a fire to make some soup. As he was cleaning up his trash and the fire, the wind blew some hot embers up the mountain and ignited the dry brush. Emerald said it happened so fast that he was unable to stamp out the embers as they blew uphill before they started burning out of control.
The fire would continue to burn for more than two months.
One year later, the area is still dealing with the after effects. One of the big fears after forest fires is floods and mud slides due to the loss of vegetation. In an unusual twist, California’s most severe drought in more than a decade has been an unexpected relief for land managers after the Rim Fire. The lack of rain has prevented large amounts of debris and ash ending up in steams and reservoirs, saving water companies from having to spend tens of thousands of dollars on cleanup. It has also reduced the amount of water resistant top soil, allowing for grass seeds and young trees to already push through and not be destroyed by runoff.
In spite of its artificial start, the Rim Fire has been seen as part of a natural experiment in the management of forests. Forest fires, most often caused by such things as lightning, are necessary to maintain forest integrity. While natural occurring fires tend to burn at lower intensities, massive wildfires of are of greater intensity when near development, due to human interference such as power lines and the presence of fuel. Nevertheless, forest fires are an important first stage of the centuries-long life of a forest and maintaining biodiversity.
There is inevitable damage to vegetation and wildlife, though other species thrive in the immediate aftermath of burned out areas. New plants and fungi develop, which are important for the subsequent species that will develop over the coming decades. When dead wood is allowed to remain, certain insects can nest and propagate, providing food for birds like certain woodpeckers, who feed on wood-boring insects, causing an increase in their populations.
This is one of the reasons that the practice of post-fire logging, in which the Forest Service allows for loggers to remove the burned out trees before they rot, is seen as bad policy from a scientific perspective.
Ecologists are looking at the aftermath as an opportunity to come up with better ideas to maintain forests and improve responses after such disasters. While the Rim Fire damage has focused on the forested area, many non-forest areas burned. In those areas, there are several types of vegetation and trees that actually need fire in order to germinate and flourish. Scientist see benefits in allowing nature to take its course, rather than moved along by human intervention. In nature, fire has its benefits.
Still, as human development encroaches further into these natural habitats, the danger and economic costs of fires has a more dire consequence. The risks to firefighters and property have led to policies to help navigate the coexistence of humans and nature. The Fire Service has burned areas on purpose to remove vegetation, which is credited for helping the Rim Fire burn out when it did. They also have strict policies for people when enjoying the forest – such as not creating campfires.
There was a no-campfire policy in effect at the time of Keith Matthew Emerald’s hunting trip.
Last week, Emerald was indicted by a federal grand jury on two felony charges and several misdemeanors. He was charged with one felony count of starting a fire and one count of lying to federal investigators. He was also charged with leaving a fire unattended and violating local fire restrictions.
Emerald has not yet been arrested, but will be arraigned this week. The charges carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Photo: Burned area in Yosemite via Thinkstock