Jeff Jardine: Feds' silence on Rim fire fuels mistrust in Tuolumne

03/15/2014 6:35 PM

03/15/2014 6:56 PM

The smoke is gone, although I’m told a stump or two continues to smolder here and there.

The Rim fire began in the Clavey River canyon in mid-August and proceeded to destroy a giant chunk of Tuolumne County. By the time crews finally snuffed it out in October, it had incinerated 257,314 acres of Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite National Park and private land, cost $127 million to put out and caused $797 million in damage to the ecosystem, according to various reports.

The government suggests a deer hunter started the fire, but it has not arrested anyone or offered supporting evidence to back up the claim. Yet authorities wasted no time in arresting and charging three men accused of starting a fire in Southern California later in the fall. That, along with muted excuses as to how smoke from the Rim fire could be reported quickly after it began and yet blow up into 400-plus square miles of pure hell simply confirm what government silence does best: fuel criticism, doubt, conspiracy theories and, most of all, distrust.

On Aug. 22, five days into the fire, I drove through Tuolumne County all the way to Cherry Lake. I wanted to see the area one more time before it again looked the way I remembered it looking after the Granite burn in 1973.

The smoke was thick that morning. The fire wasn’t far behind. I ran into a bulldozer crew that had spent the night in the forest, finding refuge in a meadow. They suggested I be on my way back to Tuolumne before 1 p.m., when the fire would blow up again after calming down slightly overnight. And I came across cattleman Stuart Crook as he tried to locate some of the family’s cattle and get them to safety. The previous night, the 130-year-old cabin at their ranch in the Jawbone Creek drainage had burned, though the barn 60 yards away came through unscathed.

The same happened nearby at the Jawbone Ranger Station, which burned to the ground while a shed a few yards away didn’t even get singed.

A day later, pretty much everywhere I’d been was burning.

This week, I drove with Shaun Crook to see the devastation at Meyers Ranch and the forest. The Crook family and other cattle ranchers hold grazing permits in the Rim fire area. Losing the cabin was heartbreaking, he said. “You’d have to ask the historical society about the value of an 1880s cabin,” Crook said.

Equally devastating was the loss of about 100 cows in the fire, which the ranchers were unable to get out or drive to safer ground. At one point during our trip, Crook stood next to the skeleton of one. Since the fire, it had been picked clean by scavengers, but he couldn’t help but think about the pain the animal had endured as the searing heat and flames approached and the animal realized it was doomed. Yes, they raise beef cattle that are sold for their meat. But none die such a painful and horrific death as the animals that perished in the fire.

Likewise, I’d spoken during the fire’s early days with Nathan Graveline, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist. At the time, he was encouraged that the vast majority of the 150 deer he and other biologists had equipped with electronic tracking technology had survived. But by the time the fire was out, 80 percent of them had perished. Two were found dead with badly burned hooves, Graveline said.

Seeing the area again for the first time since the fire, it is obvious why. The Rim fire moved so hot and so quickly that flames leapfrogged over large sections of the forest and then burned their way back, giving animals few escape routes. Some parts of the forest now bear the smell of death, including the deaths of bears. Animals, whether livestock or native to the area, were completely overmatched. Fleet-footed deer, mountain lions and foxes couldn’t survive, either.

The difference between the privately owned lands and government lands is obvious as well. Sierra Pacific Industries, which owns about 17,000 acres in the area, kept the undergrowth to a minimum because it enabled its trees to grow faster. Crews are well into salvaging its burned timber and replanting its lands.

Government-owned land, meanwhile, was dense with thinner trees and lots of undergrowth that helped fuel the blaze and will fuel more debate about the way the forests are managed.

Some believe they never should be logged or managed in any way but should be left to nature. Others, Crook among them, believe the timber and cattle interests are the truer stewards of the land and take better care of it because they have a vested interest in doing so. They also believe the better managed lands burned primarily because of the fuel that amassed in the lesser-managed and adjacent areas of the forest.

It is a debate that certainly won’t be settled in this column. What is certain is that the forest will recover in various ways, as it did after the 1973 Granite burn, the 1987 Stanislaus Complex and all of the other big fires. The private lands will be managed differently than the Forest Service lands and recover more quickly because the dead trees are being logged off and new trees planted. And how they are managed will go a long way toward determining the behavior of future fires and the ability to contain them.

Despite the seemingly endless landscape of blackened trees that give the forest a spooky appearance, along with a very light rainfall season, you can find signs of new life if you look closely. Grasses and plants are beginning to poke up through the ashes. A few deer have migrated down from the high country, as they do each winter. But, Crook said, they seem bewildered by their new surroundings. This migration, their forest is a mess.

Man, authorities claim, messed it up. We’re still waiting for them to say which one did it, and then to do something about it.

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