Rim fire started in Stanislaus National Forest, California, a week ago leaped over the borders of Yosemite National park. According to the authorities, only five percent of the fire is content. Supported by the heat of summer, lack of rain, huge amount of dry fuel and inaccessible terrain it grows rapidly threatening thousands of acres of forest, wildlife and people residing in the area. The paradox here suggest that if the fire had been a controlled one it would have been beneficial.
Wild versus controlled
Yosemite National park is a beauty. Yosemite Valley surrounded by mountain ridges, pine forests and mesmerizing waterfalls dropping to the ground from over the clouds is attracting tourists from all over the world. Just last year, according to the National Park Service, nearly four million visitors came to Yosemite to admire one of the greatest natural wanders in the world.
One of the attractions – gigantic sequoias growing in the park, one of the biggest trees the Earth has ever seen. There are 700 of them living in Mariposa Grove, Tuolumne Grove and Merced Grove, and some of them are really famous.
Grizzly Giant, for example, is one of the largest and oldest trees in the world. 210 ft tall and 30 ft wide at the base it is the oldest patriarch in the park – between 1900-2200 years old. So for Grizzly Giant and its family fire is actually good, and not only good, but essential.
Mother Nature gave sequoias unique, intricate ways of fire protection starting with the tannin rich bark which might be one foot thick and foliage growing high above the ground. No average fire can go through such defense and damage leafs. That’s not all.
Surprisingly, without fire sequoias cannot reproduce. It was noticed after the fire protection measures were introduced to sequoia national park and wildfire was stopped if possible. No young sequoias appeared making ecologists wonder why. Secret of sequoia reproduction was unveiled as a result.
Sequoias reproduce mostly by seeds, and those seeds are shed when hot air of fire reaches high sitting cones and opens them!
No fire – no heat – no seeds shed to the ground able to produce sequoia’s offspring. And again, that’s not all.
If there were no fire dancing around those enigmatic giants from time to time, there would be no seedlings able to grow. Beneficial fire not only burns forest litter, but shade loving vegetation competing for life with young capricious offspring that need full sun and rich soil. When fire frees space for the springs to grow providing them with nutrient rich ash then and only then young trees can grow reaching up the skies over centuries.
There is one more reason to love forest fire in such places like Yosemite. Where will all the forest litter go if not burned? Pile up around the trees stopping seeds from germinating and blocking sunlight.
And what will happen with all that thick dry build up eventually? It will spark in a moment providing dangerous undisturbed fuel to a wildfire nobody can control.
And then it will be a different story. Uncontained fire versus controlled.
Danger with no limits
Nobody likes uncontrollable fire, even sequoias.
Washington tree 254.7 ft tall and 101.1 ft in circumference was the second largest in the world until it partially collapsed in 2005 damaged by the burning of the crown caused by lightning. But sequoia is still sequoia, and can survive even in a damaged state. Washington tree is still alive. Not like younger shorter trees burned by the wild fires of Stanislaus National forest.
When forest managers start fires under control, they are very cautious. They have to take into account everything: temperature, humidity, wind direction and speed.
When the fire breaks out unintentionally, everything is different. It kills wildlife, burns vegetation and dangers people. It has to be confronted with all possible force. And that’s what is happening now near Yosemite.
Raging over 125,620 acres and threatening 4,500 structures it’s already counted as 16th largest fire in the history of California. 2,672 people are involved in the fire fight. Mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders had been issued for different communities. Results are still not satisfying – after one week of fierce fight only five percent of the Rim Fire is contained and it still has an extreme growth potential.
The situation remains very serious, but … Squeeze the lemon and think about the lemonade. There is a paradox: despite all the circumstances, fire might be beneficial for forests, if fires are controlled of course.
Written by Alsu Salakhutdinov