LONE PINE, Calif. (AP) — The flames are going out. Firefighters extinguish the last embers. One last smoke dissolves in the wind.
A wildfire in the California wilderness is over, and what remains is a blackened landscape of skeletal pines and leafless oaks, scorched meadows, and wood ash where saplings once stood.
Then, little by little, life returns.
A year after a wind-fueled fire scorched the mountains above Lone Pine, California, glimpses of new vegetation can be seen in a burned corner of the Inyo National Forest. The site is a mountaineering, climbing and fishing area about 350 miles (563 kilometers) southeast of San Francisco.
Tiny glimpses of white and purple flowers stand out among the bare pines, many of which lost their bark in the fire. String-thin green shoots of horsetail make their way into the earth under the bare branches of a tree. A handful of new leaves comes out like a bouquet from a burned stump.
It’s the start of a long recovery, a cycle that is repeating itself more often in the western United States as climate change brings drier, warmer seasons and more wildfires.
A fire burns with different intensities when it ravages a landscape. Some of the large trees on the hillside are dead, while others are only damaged and may recover. Typically, the first plants to reappear after fire have become more resistant to fire over time.
“Some of the shrub and other herbaceous species are more adapted to fire, and they can come back faster,” said Todd Ellsworth, fire restoration program manager at the US Forest Service.
But it may be five years before the ground cover returns to what it was before the flames. A group of pinyon pines was badly damaged, without needles and with charred trunks, and will not reappear.
“Conifers don’t come back very quickly,” Ellsworth said, referring to pines and other cone-bearing trees. Sometimes it is up to forest managers to go and replant them.
The small, fragile flowers and new shoots in a shadowy landscape among the gray rock reminded us that fire is part of the ecosystem in California, also in the eastern Sierra Nevada where that fire occurred.
Firefighters said they used minimal-impact techniques to combat the flames because “natural fire plays an important role in maintaining the landscape in these areas.”
Some species only flower after a fire.
In the burned area, near the route to Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States at 4,421 meters (14,505 feet), live the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, an endangered species, and the bark pine white, candidate for endangered species.
Reports and press releases from June and July 2021 attributed the fire to lightning and noted that the wind-stoked 600-acre (243-hectare) fire forced evacuations and cut off access to nearby roads, camping areas and trails. of Mountain. Firefighters used helicopters to drop water on the fire, which was burning on steep terrain.
The effects of climate change on forest regeneration can be significant.
A 2018 study published in the journal Ecology Letters, which analyzed nearly 1,500 burned wilderness settings, found that due to a hotter, drier climate, few forests regain their pre-fire mix of trees, and in some cases trees did not return.
Camille Stevens-Rumann, an assistant professor at Colorado State University and co-author of the study, said wildfires have gotten bigger and more intense, killing more trees, and burning more often.
“We have a lot of places that probably have a different climate than when those (coniferous) species were established,” he said, so they may have a harder time recovering after the fire.
If a drier, warmer climate is unsuitable for those trees to come back, he added, “they won’t bounce back.”