Our View: Lessons from Rim fire near Yosemite a generation out

September 7, 2013 

Big Bear firefighter Jon Curtis keeps an eye on the flames that jumped Highway 120 east of Hardin Flat Road in the Stanislaus National Forest on Aug. 24, 2013.

ELIAS FUNEZ — The Modesto Bee Buy Photo

We're going to be hearing about the Rim fire for months.

What punishment will be imposed on the unidentified hunter whose illegal campfire started the third largest wildfire in state history?

What was the total cost of fighting the blaze, including all the support personnel? How much will the federal government really pay? What will be the impact on Tuolumne County's tourist industry? Will some of the campgrounds ever be restored?

How many cattle were lost and when in the future might that grazing land be available again? What will be the impact on deer season and other recreation?

What is the total value of lost structures, homes and outbuildings? Although we must note for a fire of its magnitude, the losses are relatively small compared with what they would have been had this fire been in more urban Southern California.

But the information to be gleaned about and from the Rim fire won't all materialize in the short run. There are some long-run lessons to be learned as well.

Some people are itching to make the argument that the fire burned as intensely as it did because environmentalists have prevented the U.S. Forest Service from allowing selective timber harvests and thinning in the forests. Another, longer-term view, is offered by Roger Bales, who directs the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at UC Merced. He notes that the philosophy has been to suppress all fires in order to protect people and their property. The result: Forests that are much denser than they would have been if nature had been allowed to take her course.

The research institute is involved in measuring moisture content in the Sierra, part of an effort to improve the accuracy of water availability for our thirsty state. It had ground equipment in the path of the fire, inside Yosemite National Park. Bales said they got it out in time and home to be able to get it put back in before the snow starts.

One of the biggest questions is when the forest will grow back. The question may be whether the forest will grow back or whether, because of climate change and other factors, some of the tree-covered hillsides will turn into shrub-covered slopes.

The fire covered about a quarter-million acres, but that doesn't mean that it devastated every inch of that landscape. Researchers from other UC campuses also will be looking at what happened and why.

Soon after the fire started, a rumor quickly grew that it was started as a result of a marijuana plantation belonging to a drug cartel. That turned out to be just plain wrong. There are likely to be other wrong conclusions about the Rim fire.

It was history making, no doubt, but it also will provide lessons that could affect how and whether small fires are suppressed and how public and private forest lands are managed.

Let's let the experts of various persuasions review it and deliberate thoughtfully to bring some useful outcome from this massive fire.

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