Increasingly large and devastating wildfires have altered California’s iconic forests — altered them for perhaps centuries to come, according to some experts.
Exacerbated by decades of aggressive fire suppression efforts — which left large areas of wilderness overgrown — the fires will continue to alter the landscape. In some cases, they will leave it more susceptible to wildfire than ever before; in others, the fires likely may restore patches of wildland to their original state.
Last summer, hundreds of fire-adapted Sequoias were destroyed in the Sierra along with conifers, with rangers speculating that many of the trees may never return. In Big Basin Redwoods State Park west of San Jose, ecologists wonder about the long-term prospects for the forest behemoths as the cool, foggy environment they thrive in warms and dries.
In the Los Padres National Forest, years of repeated fires have already changed the vegetation covering the hillsides, increasing the fire risks for residents around them.
And now, after the North Complex fire, the area around Berry Creek can be added to that list, says Ryan Bauer, who leads the hazardous fuels and prescribed fire program for the Plumas National Forest.
“This was to the point that as you drive through that forest, there aren’t even large logs left on the ground, it pretty much cleaned up the surface fuels and left a big bed of ash with sticks sticking out of it,” Bauer said. “It’ll repair itself, nature is strikingly resilient, but it’s certainly not going to come back a forest.”
By the time the North Complex fire was fully contained Dec. 3, it had burned 318,935 acres, killed 16 people and damaged or destroyed 2,455 buildings, many of them homes.
Most of the North Complex fire — like the other large blazes that blackened more than 4 million acres in California in 2020 — burned too much area too intensely to be seen as an overall benefit for California’s larger forest ecology, noted University of California-Berkeley scientist Scott Stephens. “The problem is it’s not small patches of forest,” he said. “It’s large continuous patches that have burned under high severity, completely out of scale with what is desired.”
The first types of vegetation to return to the extremely burned areas will be grass and invasive shrub species like French broom and Scotch broom. They are a threat to nearby residents because of how hot they burn and how close they grow together, making them a potential link to a wildfire transforming into an urban conflagration.
“You’re not going to want to leave it around,” said David Derby, forester for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s Butte unit. “That’s what we’re having around Paradise. It’s kind of green and pretty, but it is thick and flammable, and it’s scary if it catches on fire.”
With time, some oak trees will regrow from their root systems, Derby said, but huge areas of conifers will not; the conifers rely on their foliage and cones to propagate, and the fire was too intense for any of it to survive.
The area potentially could be restored to its pre-human settlement appearance, Derby said. “It could be hundreds of years in some places. You’ll have a big opening and things will start seeding from the edges and eventually it will fill in.”
There are lessons from both the North Complex fire and Paradise in 2018 that could be applied to the lands around Berry Creek and Feather Falls, among other areas, to ensure that if and when fire returns, it will be less severe, experts say.
What the fire didn’t destroy was proof that the fuel treatments — including removing dead fuel from the ground and trimming the lower third of tall trees — slowed the fire and saved homes, officials said.
In Quincy, the Plumas County seat, years of work by federal foresters and the local fire safe council made fighting the fire there possible, Bauer said.
“If those treatments hadn’t been completed, we would’ve lost a number of homes,” Bauer said. “None of them worked 100 percent, but with the combination of several of them, we were able to stop the fire spread in there.”