Sand Fire reflections

By From page A4 | August 04, 2014

The 4,200 acres burned in the Sand Fire wreaked devastation from the confluence of the South and Middle forks of the Cosumnes River west almost to Highway E-16. It razed 19 homes and 49 structures.

From the topographic map provided by the command center it is clear that the steep canyons involved made containing and stopping this fire difficult. It is also clear from the photos our staff brought back from some of the areas that there was a lot of untended property that was just a plain fire hazard. The areas varied from chaparral and scrub oak to oak and evergreen with thick underbrush.

Living over a canyon is always a risk. Fire can roar right up from below. Clearing 100 feet or more can help stop it. We noticed how the fire wrapped around CG Di Aire Winery but left it unscathed. Trimming off the lower branches of oak trees to eliminate ladder fuels was undoubtedly a contributing factor for those vintners.

Chaparral-type vegetation mixed in with oak and even pine in the foothills was controlled in the 18th century and earlier by fire from lightning and by natives setting fires to encourage grass and desirable plants as well as drive out rabbits.

Diary accounts of early visitors to Northern California remark on the results of fire the Indians set in the San Francisco Peninsula. In the spring it felt like riding through a park, with green grass and large, widely spaced oak trees.

In the book “Fire in the Sierra Nevada Forests, a Photographic Interpretation of Ecological Changes Since 1849,” it’s remarkable what change has been wrought — not for the better.

The first comparison photos of the book show Trout Meadows in Tulare County. In the 1910 photo pine trees are tall and well spaced so that one can see through them, a rider on horseback can ride through the trees. It is simply park-like. The same scene photographed in 1995 still shows a meadow, even many of the same trees, but the forest is dense and crowded, with smaller trees. Ditto for Yosemite Valley.

Photos of Mother Lode towns, including Placerville show cleared land in 1858, tilled fields and a few standing pines. In 1994, photographed from the same vantage point the town is barely visible through ponderosa pine, gray pine, black oak, live oak, manzanita, deer brush, toyon, poison oak, chamise and assorted ornamental plants.

With all the folks who have moved to the foothills it is not practical to set fire to the brush and wait for the rains to put it out. In fact, it’s dangerous, as evidenced by the Sand Fire. Foresters like to burn the understory higher up in the Sierra, but it’s always chancy. The best approach is to thin the forest through logging. The prohibition against felling smaller trees in South Lake Tahoe led directly to the Angora Fire in 2007 that burned down 242 homes, 67 commercial structures and 3,100 acres.

For the individual homeowner the task is to clear out brush, eliminate ladder fuels from trees, thin the forest if you have one and use a string trimmer to knock down California’s famous golden grass for at least 100 feet around your house.

As a final observation, we have to say the organizational ability of Cal Fire is very impressive, setting up a command center and elaborate base camp of tents, portable showers and portable kitchens, marshalling 116 engines from throughout the state, 33 water tenders, eight bulldozers, a DC-10 jet dropping fire-retardant, along with all the other usual fire attack and spotter planes and helicopters. There were 1,617 personnel and 54 hand crews, including inmate crews from farther reaches of the state.

It was a tough fire to battle. We thank all the firefighters for working in this hot weather to stop a hot fire. And thanks to El Dorado County Watch for calling in volunteers by the hundreds.

Mountain Democrat

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