LONE PINE, Calif. — The flames fade away. Firefighters extinguish the last embers. The wind blows the last curl of smoke.
A wildfire in the California wilderness has come to an end, and what’s left behind is a blackened landscape of skeletal pines and leafless oaks, scorched meadows and ashen stumps where saplings once stood.
Then, slowly, life returns.
One year after a wind-whipped wildfire charged across a craggy mountainside above Lone Pine, California, flashes of new growth are emerging in this still-charred corner of the Inyo National Forest, a hiking, camping and fishing playground about 350 miles (563 km) southeast of San Francisco. Tiny wildflower clusters in white and purple stand out against the denuded pines that were many burned by the fire. Green shoots of horsetail as thin as yarn strands break from the ground below a tree’s barren branches. A fistful of new leaves emerges like a fresh bouquet from within an incinerated stump.
This is the beginning of a long and difficult recovery. It’s a process that will continue throughout the West’s climate change, which brings more extreme weather and wildfires.
A fire can burn at different intensity levels as it moves across the landscape. While some of the tall trees are now dead, others can be saved by being singed. The first plants to reappear after a burn typically have grown more resistant over time to the flames.
“Some of the shrub species and other grass species are more fire-adapted, and they can come back quicker,” said Todd Ellsworth, a post-fire restoration program manager with the U.S. Forest Service.
Sometimes it takes five years for the ground to recover from the fire. Pinyon pines were severely damaged in one stand. The needles had been burned from their branches and the trunks of these trees were torched black. They will never come back.
” Conifer trees are slow to grow back,” Ellsworth stated, in reference to specific pines or other coniferous trees. It’s sometimes up to foresters if they want to replant the trees.
The tiny, fragile flowers and patches of fresh growth against a stark mountainside and slabs of gray rock were a reminder that wildfire is part of the ecosystem in California, including the eastern Sierra Nevada where the fire took place.
Firefighters said they used minimum-impact techniques to fight the blaze because “natural fire plays an important role in maintaining the landscape within these areas.”
Some species only flower after a wildfire.
The area of the blaze — not far from the trailhead to Mt. Whitney, at 14,505 feet (4,421 meters) the highest mountain the contiguous United States — is home to Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, an endangered species, and to the whitebark pine, an endangered species candidate.
News reports and press releases from June and July 2021 attributed the wildfire to a lightning strike and said the nearly 600-acre (243-hectare) blaze fanned by winds forced evacuations and cut off access to nearby roads, hiking trails and campgrounds. The fire erupted on rugged terrain, and firefighters used helicopters for water delivery. The effects of climate change on forest regeneration can have a significant impact.
One 2018 study in the journal Ecology Letters that looked at nearly 1,500 wildfire sites found that because of hotter and drier climates, fewer forests are returning to their pre-burn tree mix, and in some cases trees did not return at all.
Camille Stevens Rumann is an assistant professor at Colorado State University. She was coauthor of the study. The results showed that wildfires are becoming more frequent and intense. They also kill more trees.
“We have a lot of places that are probably climatically different than when those (conifer) species were established,” she said, which means they can struggle when trying to recover after a burn.
If the climate is hotter or drier than it’s suitable for these trees, they won’t be able to recover, she said.
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