In the 20 years since the Cleveland Fire of El Dorado County, steps have been taken to prevent a major fire from breaking out in the same area after a large assessing, clearing and reforestation operation in the area.
After the fire, the U.S. Forest Service “spent nine months going through an environmental analysis,” said Don Errington, who was and continues to be the timber management officer for the Pacific Ranger District for the USFS.
“It was a high intensity fire, about 70 to 80 percent of the fire deemed high intensity.” High intensity, he explained, means that in that area, 100 percent of the trees die in the fire.
While some minor efforts had been made to thin out the trees and start logging, most of it was reforested from the previous Ice House fire about 30 years prior to the Cleveland Fire. “It was thick with brush, trees; it was very flammable.”
After the fire, the USFS began assessing while Michigan California began logging on an exemption. Nine months later, as the loggers were finishing, the USFS began salvaging the timber and selling it.
“It was a lot of work, the summer of ’93,” Errington said. “There were 200 truckloads of timber a day at the peak” for the Pacific District, which comprised about a quarter of the burn. “The Placer(ville) District did a little less, with less ground work and more aerial lifting.” The Placer District also comprised about a quarter of the land; the other half was private land.
About a million board feet was being cleared each day from the Pacific District, Errington said. “It was old growth, never logged, plus plantation,” he said, referring to areas where trees had been planted and logged. “It was intensive salvage for two years.” He said that the number of trees burned in the two weeks of the fire is what the forest would normally lose over the course of a full year. This could take a toll on those wanting to use the land recreationally, as well as local water quality.
“The creeks ran red. Ash and soil went into the American River. The impact on Folsom Lake was insignificant,” Errington said.
After clearing the aftermath, what Errington called “one of the last serious salvage sales in California,” reforestation began. Some of the dead trees were left alone for wildlife use. Another reason was environmental groups calling for no human help in rebuilding the forest. Without human help, Errington said, reforestation would take “centuries.”
As it was, the actions taken starting in 1992 would “set the tone for what the area will look like for the next 150 years,” he said. “We’re harvesting now to protect, it’s designed for future choices. But only if we get off to the right start after the fire.”
Areas where the dead trees were not removed are now brush fields and may return to actual forests in several generations, Errington said, whereas reforested areas now have trees and need to be pruned.
Reforesting and pruning allows for future generations to decide what they want to do with the forest, rather than a field of brush with a few saplings, Errington said. “There are a lot of choices for the future generations to make. These areas burn regularly, every seven, eight, 10 years. They are typically open, not a lot of brush, open trees. Open stands, cathedral-like, with pines.”
All of the proceeds from the salvage are going in to prevention of another fire, roads and training, Errington said. Basically, to fix what was done and to prevent it from happening again.
“What we have now is 50- or 60-foot trees, 14 to 16 inches in diameter. They are being managed much differently than after the Ice House Fire.” Pre-commercial treatment is given, reducing the number of trees and boughs that could add fuel to flames.
Those areas that have been reforested and trimmed to prevent fires are almost ready for commercial logging, Errington said. The thinned and treated area is about 100,000 acres, more than four times what the Cleveland Fire destroyed. Emphasis for the treatment has been around the community, he said, and their “ability to (treat areas) has improved with improved equipment and technology.”
Although it is expensive, the Forest Service is currently treating about 4,000 acres each year in Eldorado National Forest. The ultimate goal is to be able to do prescribe fires alongside trimming. Doing prescribed burns, monitored by firefighters, allows brush to be eliminated and to harden trees to future fires. The fire scars the trees, but does not burn them, leaving them less likely to be fuel for a later, bigger fire. But this has not been feasible with California’s air quality and other fires, Errington said.
“There’s concern it will happen again,” he said. “It almost has to happen again. We’re really lucky around here.”