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Fire in Yosemite as vital as wind, water

Part 1 of 3

YOSEMITE – Wildfire is part of life in the Central Sierra. Though a cause for fear, it is also an important part of the ecology of Yosemite National Park.

That doesn’t mean authorities truly allow them to run wild however.

“The common misconception about Yosemite using fire on the landscape, is that we just let it go,” says Yosemite Fire Chief Kelly Martin. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

When lightning-caused fires are discovered in Yosemite, they are assessed for many things, including any threat to populated areas and the benefits to the ecosystem.

Martin says Yosemite is at the epicenter of managing wildfires for both ecological and protection objectives, and has a long history of using lightning fires to reduce fuels, thin the forest, and create a resilient ecosystem. This is critical after decades of misguided fire suppression.

Before fire season begins, Martin and the Fire Management Committee discuss opportunities for where they’re going to allow fires to burn during the summer.

“One of the first things we look at is seasonality – how dry is it this summer? If it’s very dry, such as during a drought year, we will consider higher elevation fires. It’s cooler and wetter there, the trees are more broadly spaced, and not nearly as flammable as those in the lower elevations.”

They then look at the fire history in the area – are there burn scars in recent years? Can those patchwork burns be used to manage the fire? Is the fire beneficial for Yosemite? They also consider fuel loads, and access for firefighters and their safety.

“Fire is one of the main tools we use to create healthy forests,” says Martin. “We’ve been doing this for almost 50 years, and it’s very important for the millions of visitors we serve. It’s also an opportunity to use fire in a beneficial way. Not all fire is bad.”

Martin says that most wildfires are not devastating.

“Absolutely not every fire is bad, and we really want the public to understand that there are a wide variety of effects that we are going to see on the landscape. Like a campfire, wildfires can be small, or large. There are some that are hugely destructive and can destroy homes and threaten lives. But when fire is slow-moving, it provides more of an opportunity for us to allow it to play its natural role.” In the lower elevations of the park where there are communities and more of a threat to life and property, fire continues to be suppressed, but other actions are being taken, such as thinning and removing downed fuels, and prescribed burning in the off-season.

“The intent of those investments today is that when a large wildfire hits those fuel breaks, it won’t destroy homes and property,” says Martin. “There’s no guarantee by any means, but doing preventative work in and around communities is important. The more we can actually have good fire on the landscape, the more it acts as a buffer and absorbs the energy from the more intense wildfire because you’ve removed a lot of the fuel.”

Martin says to goal is to protect the big trees, while reducing the number of smaller trees underneath the forest canopy, so that when wildfire enters that fuel treatment area, it drops to the ground, and there’s a better chance of taking suppression action and saving those communities. In the higher elevations, fire managers have a wider range of options. As a part of any list of objectives on a wildfire, managers work to “keep costs commensurate with values at risk.”

“Where you want the fire to stop may not be the safest place to put firefighters, so we look at natural barriers such as creek bottoms, areas of granite and fuel type changes. We then let the fire burn into these natural barriers. All this is not without a lot of effort and planning,” he said.


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