JARDINE: What's new is old again as Tuolumne blaze revisits old scars

August 25, 2013 

    alternate textJeff Jardine
    Title: Local columnist
    Coverage areas: People, issues, the community
    Bio: Jeff Jardine joined The Bee's staff in 1988 after a decade at the Stockton Record. He covered sports before moving into news in 1996 and became the Local Columnist in 2003. He graduated from University of the Pacific in 1979, majoring in communications and history.
    Recent stories written by Jeff
    On Twitter: @jeffjardine57
    E-mail: jjardine@modbee.com

— A few days ago, I drove through Tuolumne City and headed into the North Fork canyon on Cottonwood Road, destination Cherry Lake.

Smoke from the Rim fire — thick, eye-irritating and choking — shrouded the entire area. But the flames still were about 12 hours away from the Cherry Lake area. The evacuation advisory for Tuolumne City and the neighboring Ponderosa Hills subdivision was a day away.

I went there because I wanted to get one last look at the Jawbone range before it burned — again. I wanted to revisit the Granite fire area, which became a moonscape 40 years ago and still bears some remnants: charred stumps and an area brought back to life through reforestation efforts.

That fire scorched 17,000 acres in the summer of 1973. By Thursday morning, as the Rim fire blew up into a megablaze, the same part of the Stanislaus National Forest was doomed again.

The Rim fire has them all beat when it comes to devastation. By the time this fire-breathing dragon has been slain, it will have overlapped the perimeter of virtually every major fire in the region since 1949.

Jerry Snyder of the U.S. Forest Service in Sonora graciously assembled a map showing the major blazes the Rim fire has reburned. (Click here to see map.)

The Granite fire is among them. So are the 23,000-acre Rogge and the 59,000-acre Ackerson fires, both in 1996, with the latter charring parts of Yosemite National Park. Same goes for the 146,000-acre Stanislaus Complex fire in 1987, which ranks 11th among California's top 20 wildfires by acreage.

There are others: the 4,100-acre Pilot fire in 1997, and the 1,000-acre blaze in the Tuolumne River Canyon that claimed the life of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection firefighter Eva Schicke in 2004. It is expected to encroach on the 25,000-acre footprint of the 1949 Wrights Creek fire.

One that didn't make the map, also from 1949: the 8,000-acre Walton Spur fire near Bull Meadow, nearly in the heart of the Rim fire's turf. It killed two firefighters.

This points to the harsh reality of living, working and playing in the foothills and mountains: Forests that burned before and are burning now someday will burn again.

They'll grow back, some better than others. Some will be replanted, thinned and maintained by logging interests that own the property.

Other areas, primarily government-owned land, will take nature's course except when funding is available to clear the dry fuel from the forest floors.

Conservationists and environmentalists constantly battle over the commercial uses of a national forest. Indeed, the Forest Service is a branch of the Department of Agriculture because the forests are deemed resources.

View the area via satellite mapping and you'll also see a checkerboard of areas that were clear-cut harvested bordered by areas of lush forest — at least until an updated satellite image reflects the ongoing destruction.

Environmentalists claim logging operations are destructive. Some argue that until a couple of centuries ago, such fires eventually burned themselves out and were good for the environment.

Fires? They don't concern themselves with political and philosophical differences. They just burn whatever gets their way. They go wherever available fuel and the wind they help create take them.

Which brings us back to the Granite fire of 1973. In the early years after the blaze, it was a moonscape. Over time, the replanted "plantation" forest grew back into a thing of beauty.

Brush soon overtook Jawbone Creek, though. I recognized the creek Thursday only because I knew where it should be along the way to Cherry Lake, and because I remembered there was a small parking place next to the stream where it goes beneath Cottonwood Road. Otherwise, it was hidden.

It probably isn't that way now. When the Rim fire finally is extinguished, I suspect the Granite fire area will look just as it did 40 years ago: burned to a crisp.

And along with the Stanislaus Complex, Rogge, Ackerson and other burned areas caught in the Rim fire's swath, the trees, plants and brush in the Granite area will grow again.

They'll become places of beauty and serenity again.

They'll also become fuel for another colossal fire someday.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.

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